Department of Transportation Issues Emergency Orders on Railroad Safety After Multiple Accidents

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently reached an agreement with railroad companies regarding safety measures for the transportation of crude oil by train, often known simply as “crude-by-rail.” Multiple recent rail accidents have led to concerns about the safety of crude oil obtained from areas of North Dakota, Montana, and Canada. The DOT issued emergency orders in early March 2014 requiring crude-by-rail shippers to test products and clearly label crude oil from the affected regions. Individuals and families living and working along rail lines face significant risks of injury from unsafe shipping practices, and the known hazards of this particular type of crude oil make enforcing safety regulations even more important.

The Bakken formation is a geologic region within the U.S. states of Montana and North Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It has been a major source of shale oil in recent years. While ordinary crude oil can be pumped out of the ground, shale oil is derived from certain types of rock and requires different processes, including hydraulic fracking. The federal government issued a warning about crude oil from the Bakken region in early January 2014, several days after a train transporting Bakken crude caught fire and derailed in North Dakota. Bakken crude oil is particularly volatile, subject to catching fire and exploding if not transported correctly.

At least three additional derailments involving crude oil from the Bakken area have occurred in the past year. A derailment in Alabama in November 2013 sent twenty cars off the rails, which burned for several days. In January 2014, a derailment in New Brunswick, Canada resulted in the evacuation of forty-five homes in the immediate area. Fortunately no injuries resulted in either incident. In July 2013, however, a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec burned through a large portion of the town and killed at least forty-two people, with another five missing and presumed deceased.

Railroads are required by federal statutes and regulations to handle hazardous materials in a safe manner, but they also have a duty under general negligence theory and products liability to take reasonable precautions to protect consumers and the public from known hazards. Crude oil is already known to be both toxic and volatile, and crude oil from the Bakken region is now known to be especially dangerous.

The DOT called on railroad companies that transport crude-by-rail to come up with safer procedures, and it reached an agreement with them on voluntary changes in February 2014. Most hazardous liquids transported within the U.S. do not have to undergo risk analyses regarding the impact of a derailment or spill on nearby populations. According to a ” title=”Freight Railroads Join U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx in Announcing Industry Crude By Rail Safety Initiative” target=”_blank”>press release by the American Association of Railroads, rail companies will begin to use the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, which takes twenty-seven risk factors into account in plotting rail routes. See 49 C.F.R. Part 172, App. D. Other changes include reduced speeds in highly-populated areas, additional emergency response training, outreach to communities at risk, and enhanced braking systems for trains with at least twenty cars.

The products liability lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen represent the rights of people in the Washington, DC area who have suffered injuries due to the illegal, tortious, or negligent conduct of others. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

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