Maine delegates laud proposed steps to prevent Lac-Megantic-level railway disaster in US

A police officer looks on near the site of the train wreckage in Lac Megantic, July 9, 2013. The crude oil freight train that derailed and blew up in the small town of Lac-Megantic early on Saturday morning, July 6, 2013, was traveling far too fast when it went off the rails, investigators told reporters.
MATHIEU BELANGER | REUTERS
A police officer looks on near the site of the train wreckage in Lac Megantic, July 9, 2013. The crude oil freight train that derailed and blew up in the small town of Lac-Megantic early on Saturday morning, July 6, 2013, was traveling far too fast when it went off the rails, investigators told reporters.
Posted July 23, 2014, at 3:01 p.m.
Last modified July 23, 2014, at 4:32 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The U.S. Department of Transportation rolled out a series of proposed new rail safety rules on Wednesday, including phasing out tens of thousands of older railway tanker cars used to transport flammable liquids, including crude oil, over the next two years.

Maine’s congressional delegation celebrated the proposals as a step in the right direction.

“The horrific derailment that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year — just 30 miles from the Maine border — brought to light the importance of ensuring the safe transportation of energy products,” U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said in a news release.

Last summer, a train carrying crude oil derailed and crashed in the small town, causing an explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed dozens of buildings at the heart of the village.

The new set of regulations proposed by the DOT call for the phasing out older DOT-111 railway tankers over the next two years. The changes also would call for hazardous materials shipments to avoid populated areas where possible; reduce the speed of trains carrying hazardous shipments; revamp oil spill response plans for rail companies; improve testing procedures to ensure hazardous materials are properly classified when shipped; and more.

The DOT has posted the proposed rules for 60 days to give the public and railway officials a chance to comment. After the comment period closes, the DOT will determine if changes need to be made before issuing final rules.

In a Wednesday news release, U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree said they requested “a large number” of the provisions, including the removal of DOT-111 tanks from U.S. tracks.

“I believe the rules proposed today are commonsense steps that will help us prevent another tragedy like Lac-Megantic, and better position states and local communities to respond quickly when an accident does occur,” Michaud said.

Collins, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, said she has pressed the Obama Administration to “ensure that we are taking the necessary actions to prevent another Lac-Megantic, while not overburdening an industry that has a proven track record of safety.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King also welcomed the proposals on Wednesday, announcing his support for the RESPONSE Act, which would establish a Federal Emergency Management Agency subcommittee tasked with coordinating railroad hazardous material disaster response planning at various levels of government.

“This new set of proposed rules holds the potential to significantly improve the safety of communities in Maine,” King said. “Mainers who live near rail lines should not have to hold their breath every time a train runs through or near their town.”

Pingree expressed concern that the railway industry would resist these changes.

“I hope that the Obama Administration sticks with these proposed new safety standards and doesn’t let the railroad industry water them down before they are finalized,” Pingree said.

Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday afternoon that the organization was “encouraged by the continuing emphasis on safety” and exploration of ways of making the state’s and nation’s rail system more secure.

“We’ll obviously be looking at the proposed rules very closely and offering comment should there be need to do so,” she said.

Officials with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection weren’t immediately available for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.

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