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U.S. follows Canada’s lead in rail safety regulations for crude oil

A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment Monday, Dec 30, 2013, in Casselton, N.D.

Bruce Crummy/AP

U.S. regulators are ordering shippers to test all crude oil drawn from the Bakken formation before moving it by rail, in response to a series of fiery train explosions.

The emergency order, issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday, also requires all crude to be classified in one of two higher-risk categories, even if test results indicate it is less dangerous. The rules are meant to deal with growing concern about the safety of moving volatile crude oil by rail after the devastating accident in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

"Today we are raising the bar for shipping crude oil on behalf of the families and communities along rail lines nationwide —if you intend to move crude oil by rail, then you must test and classify the material appropriately," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

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The classification change follows a similar move in Canada, where Transport Minister Lisa Raitt began requiring tests for all crude shipments last fall. A Globe and Mail investigation has documented how oil from the Bakken formation, which straddles North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, can be more volatile than crude from other regions, making it more likely to explode or catch fire during an accident.

The train that derailed in Lac-Mégantic last July was carrying crude from the Bakken, which investigators said acted abnormally when it exploded, killing 47 people. The crude had been incorrectly classified as "packing group III," the least dangerous option for crude oil.

The U.S. rules announced Tuesday mean shippers can no longer classify crude shipments in that packing group, even if test results suggest they are not highly volatile.

By eliminating the use of "packing group III" for crude shipments in the U.S., shippers can no longer use AAR 203W and AAR 211W tank cars, which the department says have less integrity than other cars typically used to move crude oil in North America. The rules do not appear to affect the use of older model DOT-111 tank cars, such as the ones involved in the Lac-Mégantic crash, which have been widely criticized as prone to puncture and corrosion.

According to the Association of American Railroads, about 40 per cent of 228,000 DOT-111 tank cars carry flammable liquids such as crude and ethanol. Only a small fraction of the cars carrying the hazardous materials are built to the latest safety standards, which call for thicker, puncture-proof walls, protective shields and protected vents.

Speaking with The Globe on Tuesday, Ms. Raitt said she was pleased to see the U.S. moving ahead with classification testing. "It's good to see that they're moving forward and of course our goal is to ensure that we get the older model DOT-111s out of the system," she said.

The federal government took steps last month to close a perceived loophole in Canada's classification testing rules by introducing changes that would require companies to vouch for the contents of crude oil and keep detailed records of test results for at least two years.

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