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Schumer’s Effort To Make Tank Cars Stronger Is A Critical Component To Make Oil-By-Rail Safer, But Making The Actual Crude Oil Contained In Oil Cars Less Volatile Is Another Important Step That Feds Must Undertake

Recent Oil Train Derailment In Oregon, 16 Cars Derailed, 4 Caught Fire; Area Residents Were Evacuated & More Than 40,000 Gallons Of Crude Oil Were Spilled

Schumer: Feds Need To Fix Shipping Standards Before It’s Too Late 

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer on a conference call with reporters announced he is calling on U.S. Department of Transportation to issue an emergency order requiring oil companies to stabilize highly flammable crude oil before shipping it through New York. Schumer said current law allows dangerous crude oil to be shipped without being stabilized, making violent explosions far more likely.

“The damage that volatile, highly dangerous crude can cause in New York communities is tremendous, but there are important steps we can take to significantly lower the risk of a damaging explosion, like making crude oil less volatile before it’s transported through our backyards,” said Schumer. “That is why I am calling on DOT to immediately issue an emergency order that would, for the first time, set a federal standard for volatility. I have been fighting for years to get the federal government to issue strong regulations that would make the transport of oil safer, and this emergency order would be another crucial safety feature to add to the mix.”

Schumer’s push for an emergency order comes on the heels of the recent news of the significant crude oil train derailment in Oregon, when 16 cars derailed, 4 caught fire, area residents were evacuated and more than 40,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled. According to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), crude oil is highly flammable and could explode if a tank car derails and punctures. Schumer said that his ongoing push to strengthen tank car standards that will make punctures and breaches less likely is a critical step in making crude transport by rail safer, but an all-of-the-above approach is needed; making the actual crude oil loaded into the tank cars less volatile is something oil companies are capable of doing and another important step the federal government must undertake. Schumer also highlighted that research has shown Bakken Shale Oil, which is currently shipped through New York, is significantly more volatile than other types of crude oil produced elsewhere in the world. In some cases the currently being shipped through New York is as much as 3 or 4 times more volatile than crude produced around the Gulf of Mexico, making the likelihood of a catastrophic accident far higher.  

Schumer said that, across New York State, the dangers posed by shipping volatile crude oil by rail have become increasingly clear. With hundreds of tank cars full of crude oil traveling through the state every day, Schumer has worked over the past year and a half to better ensure the safety of residents by pushing to strengthen tank car standards that would make explosions less likely in the instance of derailments and breaches.

During the call, Schumer’s office shared a map of the Canadian Pacific and CSX freight rail lines that carry crude oil across New York and pass through nearly every major urban area. The CSX line carries crude from Buffalo through Rochester, Syracuse and Utica to the Albany area, where some of the oil is diverted to the Port of Albany and the remainder then heads south on rail lines along the Hudson River before skirting New York City on its way to New Jersey. The Canadian Pacific (CP) freight rail line brings crude down from Rouses Point through Plattsburgh, along Lake Champlain and Whitehall, Saratoga, Cohoes, and Watervliet to Albany. Some crude from the CP line merges with Pam Am Railroad at Mechanicville and heads east to Massachusetts. Most, however, continue to the Port of Albany where the crude oil is loaded onto barges or oil tankers to travel down the Hudson en route to refineries in Canada and the east coast.

Schumer has been a long-time leader on the issue of oil-by-rail safety. Specifically, he was one of the early proponents of requiring rail carriers and oil companies to phase out older, more dangerous rail cars to make crude-by-rail transport safer for the communities across New York State where these trains travel every day. More recently, Schumer introduced critical legislation that would expedite the elimination of the dangerous crude oil carrying DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars and impose operating restrictions and speed limits in residential areas. In addition, Schumer has pushed for more information sharing between rail companies and local first responders to improve the response in the event of an emergency or a spill.


A copy of Senator Schumer’s letter to the Department of Transportation appears below:


Dear Secretary Foxx,

As trains carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil continue to move through communities across America, we are writing to request that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) move to issue an interim standard for the volatility of crude oil shipped by rail. We must establish more stringent regulations on these oil trains, which pose an enormous danger to cities, towns, rural areas, and the environment.

The June 3, 2016 derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude in Mosier, Oregon is a sobering reminder of the danger that volatile crude oil poses when it is transported by rail. In total, 16 cars of a 96-car train derailed. Of those, four cars caught fire and spilled 42,000 gallons of crude oil. This oil contaminated the soil and the local water treatment facility, through which oil reached the Columbia River.  Due to the derailment and the fire, 100 residents – nearly a quarter of Mosier’s population – had to be evacuated.

The regulation of volatility for crude oil is inconsistent and there remains a gap in regulating the volatility of oil transported by rail. The North Dakota state Industrial Commission has regulated volatility of Bakken crude oil at 13.7 psi Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP).  The New York Mercantile Exchange has limited the volatility of crude oil contracts traded on its exchange to 9.5 psi RVP, and pipeline operators in the Eagle Ford require shippers to limit volatility to between 9 and 10 psi RVP.  However, there is no federal regulation to restrict the volatility of crude oil shipped by rail.    

Currently, PHMSA and the Department of Energy are engaged in a multi-year effort to study the volatility of various types of crude being transported by rail. Under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (P.L. 114-94), PHMSA must issue a report and recommend regulations governing the volatility of crude oil being transported by rail. However, due to the fact that these studies are years from completion, we remain gravely concerned about the safety of our communities along rail lines carrying this volatile crude oil.

Under USDOT’s authority to issue emergency orders (49 U.S.C. 5121 (d)), we urge you to immediately set an interim standard for volatility of crude oil to ensure its safe transport. While standards for tank cars improve, derailments, fires and explosions continue to occur. It is clear that the shipment of crude without a national standard regulating volatility poses an imminent hazard. For the safety of our communities, we urge you to move now to issue an interim standard for volatility.


Charles E. Schumer

United States Senator