Portland Press Herald

The one railroad still hauling crude oil through Maine said Wednesday that it relies on accurate labeling of tanker contents to safely haul cargo.

“We always check the cars and do an inspection,” said Cynthia Scarano, executive vice president for Pan Am Railways. “But as far as the materials, we have the bill of lading, and that should match up with what’s in the car and what the placard reads. Our people don’t open cars. We don’t load or offload them. We just deliver them.”

Scarano was reacting to news from Canada that the oil that contributed to the massive inferno in the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, train disaster in July was as volatile as gasoline, but was labeled as a less flammable class of crude.

Hazardous material rules in both countries require tank cars to have placards documenting their contents.

Correctly knowing the characteristics of the cargo helps rail workers to prepare a train more safely, Scarano said. Tankers with hazardous materials, for instance, could be buffered with boxcars, she said.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada asked regulators in Canada and the United States to review the procedures used to document hazardous cargo.

That review is already underway in the United States. Late last month, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration stepped up inspections of crude oil cars in North Dakota, a move known as the “Bakken blitz” and named for the area’s oil deposits. The goal is to make sure shippers are properly labeling rail tank cargo.

The news out of Canada also highlighted growing concern about whether the chemicals and techniques used to extract crude from shale deposits make the oil more flammable and corrosive. Much of North Dakota’s oil is brought to the surface through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

This issue is being investigated by U.S. railroad officials, who have expressed surprise that the crude at Lac-Megantic was so volatile. But it’s a complicated situation, according to coverage last month on the website. It noted that the Federal Railway Administration and shippers are left to guess about the properties of the oil loaded for transport, because the information provided to railroads isn’t gathered from actual tests.

The crude oil involved in the Lac-Megantic explosion came from shale deposits in North Dakota’s Bakken field. Bakken crude also is the predominant oil moving across Maine, on its way to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Pan Am was hauling more than 385,000 barrels of crude oil through Maine last March. Maine, Montreal & Atlantic Railway, the now-bankrupt railroad that was bringing the load through Quebec at the time of the explosion, had carried 484,000 barrels across Maine last March, according to state figures.

Crude deliveries by rail to the Irving Oil refinery have dropped substantially in recent months, Scarano said. She attributed the decline to shifting global oil prices more than to the fallout from Lac-Megantic.

“We’ve had only a couple of trains since the accident,” she said.

The Lac-Megantic accident raises further questions about the adequacy of the DOT-111 tank cars, the Canadian agency also said. Those cars are the dominant tanker model used in the North American fleet.

For years, safety advocates have been calling for the old-technology cars to be upgraded, to make them more crash- and puncture-resistant.

Roughly 240,000 of the 310,000 tank cars operating today are DOT-111, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Most of the crude oil carried by Pan Am in Maine is in DOT-111 tankers, Scarano said. Pan Am doesn’t own the cars. They are leased to the shipper and simply picked up from other railroads where their tracks connect with Pan Am.

Canada’s findings coincide with news last week that U.S. hazardous materials regulators are taking a first step in ordering the railroad industry to upgrade DOT-111 tank cars.

The industry has long opposed retrofitting existing cars, saying it’s too expensive. Instead, it has adopted standards for new cars. Since 2011, crude oil and ethanol tank cars are being built with thicker shells, and with extra protection at both ends and at top fittings.

But the growth of North American oil production, and controversy about building new oil pipelines, has created more demand for rail cars than manufacturers can satisfy right now. The volume of crude moving by rail in the second quarter this year is at record levels, the Association of American Railroads reported recently.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.