U.S. regulators are failing to refer serious safety violations involving freight rail shipments of crude oil and other hazardous cargo for criminal prosecution, according to a report Friday by a government watchdog.
The Federal Railroad Administration routinely applies only modest civil penalties for hazardous materials safety violations, even though inspectors request penalties for serious or repeated infractions, said the report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general.
Instead, the agency's lawyers have made it a priority to process penalties quickly and avoid legal challenges, the report said.
And, although the agency processes hundreds of safety violations each year, it appears that not a single case has ever been referred for criminal investigation, the report said. But after examining a random sample of safety violations over five years, the inspector general's office found 17 cases it said the agency should have referred for criminal investigation.
"As a result, penalties have little deterrent effect, and criminal penalties aren't being pursued," wrote Mitchell Behm, assistant inspector general for surface transportation.
Concern about rail shipments of hazardous cargo has been heightened in recent years by a series of fiery oil train explosions in the United States and Canada, including one in Lac-Megantic, Que., that killed 47 people.
Matt Lehner, an FRA spokesman, said most of the inspector general's recommendations are being implemented. He noted that the agency collected $15 million (U.S.) in fines for violations in the 2015 federal budget year, a 12-per-cent increase over the previous year and the most in the agency's history
The agency also doesn't have a complete understanding of the risks of rail shipments of hazardous cargo, including more than 400,000 tank cars of oil shipped across the country annually, the watchdog found. That's because the agency only looks narrowly at operations in specific regions, not the United States as a whole, the report said.
The regional evaluations also don't include an assessment of the risks of transporting highly volatile and hazardous materials like crude oil near cities and major population centres, the report said.
Without an accurate national assessment, the railroad administration can't be sure that all the appropriate risk factors are being considered when deciding which operations are most in need of inspections, the report said.
The inspector general also faulted the agency's complex records system, saying it makes difficult for inspectors to access safety information on rail operations outside their region. As a result, the railroad administration and a sister agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, don't share critical and up-to-date information with safety inspectors and investigators in different regions throughout the country.
The report confirms "that the federal government has failed to provide the necessary oversight to protect communities across the country from serious accidents involving the rail transportation of hazardous materials," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.