A warning to the leading association of the oil and natural gas industry indicates that problems that may have contributed to the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, rail disaster go beyond the railway whose runaway train killed 47 people last month.
A Federal Railroad Administration’s safety and compliance officer wrote July 29 to the American Petroleum Institute that the FRA’s post-Lac-Megantic safety standards review has found that some crude oil shipments are carried in unsafe rail cars because the shipments are misclassified, overloaded and incorrectly identified on shipping manifests.
“FRA recommends that shippers evaluate their processes for testing, classifying and packaging the crude oil that they offer into transportation via railroad tank car,” wrote Thomas J. Herrmann, acting director of FRA’s Office of Safety Assurance and Compliance.
At its website, api.org, the institute advertises itself as the nation’s only trade association representing America’s entire oil and natural gas industry.
“The frequency and type of testing should be based on a shipper’s knowledge of the hazardous material, with specific considerations given to the volume of hazardous materials shipped, the variety of sources that the hazardous material is generated from, and the processes that generate the hazardous material,” Herrmann wrote.
Canadian investigators and Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway officials have puzzled over why the explosion that devastated the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic on July 6 was so deadly. Light crude oil, they have said, is not typically so flammable.
Herrmann’s letter does not specify the crude oil shipments investigators examined was the same as what exploded at Lac-Megantic. The letter does say that crude oil shipped by rail “often derives from different sources and is then blended” and that the chemical testing of these blends is based on a single data source that “only provides a material classification and a range of material properties.”
That information is typically provided by the shipper’s customers, and shippers don’t often know whether the testing has been validated, Herrmann wrote.
“Further, FRA audits indicate that [the test data] is not gleaned from any recently conducted tests or from testing for the many different sources (wells) of the crude oil,” Herrmann wrote.
This leads to shippers carrying crude oil in tankers “not equipped with the required design enhancements” that would guarantee safety, a violation of federal Hazardous Materials Regulations, Herrmann wrote.
The inadequate testing could have “safety implications if the crude oil being transported has been improperly classified and actually has a lower flash point.”
Exactly how many deficient tankers or shipments of misclassified oil are traveling over U.S. tracks is uncertain, Herrmann wrote. According to the 2012 annual report by the Association of American Railroads, crude oil shipments have increased 443 percent since 2005 — by far the fastest-growing segment of all hazardous material shipments by rail.
FRA’s ongoing review of shipping data shows increasing numbers of cases of “severe corrosion”of tanker car fittings, valves, manway covers and internal tank surfaces since 2004, Herrmann wrote.
“If an investigation reveals that is not being properly classified per [federal regulations], FRA may use its enforcement tools” — including compliance and emergency orders, plus fines — “to address noncompliance,” he said.
Another federal agency found a history of flaws in the tanker cars involved in the Lac-Megantic tragedy that goes back to 1991.