The Transportation Safety Board is calling for U.S. and Canadian regulators to review the adequacy of railway tanker cars and oil transportation rules after its initial probe into the deadly derailment and explosion of Bakken oil in Lac-Mégantic.
In an advisory issued Wednesday, TSB officials said oil carried in 72 tanker cars from North Dakota to Quebec was more flammable than identified by its shipper, bringing "into question the adequacy of Class 111 cars" typically used to transport rail shipments of crude from the Bakken region in North Dakota and Saskatchewan. TSB investigators said the oil "ignited so quickly" soon after the tanker cars ruptured because the light Bakken oil is more volatile.
Although investigators say the oil was misidentified as a more stable class of crude, long-standing federal transport regulations have not kept pace with a surge in shipments of explosive oil from the Bakken region. Railways are not required to take any extra precautions even when the oil is classified as more hazardous. In a statement, the TSB urged regulators to "review the processes for suppliers and companies transporting or importing dangerous goods," to insure safer transportation.
The TSB is working alongside U.S. transport regulators to investigate the catastrophic oil fire and explosions that killed 47 Lac-Mégantic residents and levelled the town's core. U.S. regulators recently indicated they are considering tougher safety rules to require sturdier tank cars, smaller car loads and better venting systems when hazardous materials are carried on the rails.
At an Ottawa press conference Wednesday, TSB officials cited a North Dakota shipper and New Brunswick-based refinery giant Irving Oil for failing to ensure the Bakken oil was properly classified. The oil was loaded onto the ill-fated train in New Town, N.D., by an affiliate of Miami-based World Fuel Services Corp. According to the TSB, some of the oil on the train was initially classified as a more hazardous category of oil – as volatile as gasoline – by North Dakota producers who sold the oil to World Fuel. When the crude was loaded into rail cars in New Town, however, the TSB said the oil was classified as standard crude.
TSB investigator Don Ross said the shipper and Irving Oil are required under Canadian transportation laws to ensure that goods are properly identified. Irving, as the importer of the crude to Canada, is responsible under federal import laws for ensuring the shipment paperwork accurately describes the contents.
Mr. Ross said the TSB has not yet completed its investigation, but it issued the safety advisory to allow Transport Canada to look at the situation more closely.
Sam Robinson, a spokeswoman for Irving Oil, would not respond to specific criticism raised by the TSB. She said the company is offering "our full support to authorities as this tragedy is investigated."
A spokesman for World Fuel said the shipment was properly identified as crude, which is considered hazardous and flammable. Although the TSB said the shipment should have been identified as packing group 2, signifying it had a lower flash point than crude typically listed under packing group 3, World Fuels said the change in paperwork would not have altered anything about how the cargo "was handled, transported, routed or responded to by emergency personnel upon MMA's derailment."
The TSB acknowledged to reporters that had the oil been labelled as potentially more dangerous, federal regulations do not require the train to take a different route around towns, use different tanker cars to haul the oil, nor limit the number of cars that are being transported.
A spokeswoman for Transport Canada said the department is examining the issues raised by the safety board "on an expedited basis."
If a company fails to properly classify goods it is carrying, it can be prosecuted under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Penalties for officials contravening the Act are up to two years in prison on indictment and up to $50,000 for a first offence on a summary conviction.
The DOT-111 cars that derailed in Lac-Megantic are the most commonly used tankers for shipping oil on the rails. U.S. transportation regulators have identified ruptures in the cars as a concern in a number of serious rail accidents. Two years ago, DOT-111 manufacturers introduced more puncture-proof tankers, but they are not being produced quickly enough to keep up with booming rail shipments of Bakken oil. The sturdier new tanker cars only account for about a quarter of the 310,000 cars in use in the United States.