In its zeal to roll back regulations — especially those established during President Obama’s eight years in office — the Trump administration decision to reverse a rail industry requirement has the potential to endanger the environment and the lives of those living and working near the trains carrying crude oil and other volatile materials.
These are the trains that pass through our communities, from Edmonds to Stanwood, Index to Everett, and along shorelines and over rivers and estuaries.
Recently, the federal Department of Transportation announced that it was rolling back rules — established just two years before — that all trains carrying flammable liquids be equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes by 2021, rather than the air brakes that have been the industry standard for more than a century.
This regulation and others followed a steady march of rail disasters — many where the failure of air brakes were a factor — including the 2013 disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that killed at least 47 people when an unattended train with 74 cars carrying Bakken crude oil rolled down a grade and into town, derailed and exploded with a blast radius of more than half a mile.
More recently, a Union Pacific train of 96 cars, also carrying the highly volatile Bakken crude, derailed in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier, Oregon, in June 2016. Sixteen of its cars derailed when a failure of its emergency braking system caused the brakes to engage. Several cars caught fire. Had the derailment occurred elsewhere, the leaking cars could have landed in the Columbia River or near populated areas.
Nearly two decades of study elsewhere have found that the electronically controlled brakes can reduce the number of cars derailed, thus reducing the chance for disasters involving spills, fires or explosions.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said it made its decision following a review of the rule and its costs and benefits, determining that the switch to the new braking system would “exceed three-fold the benefits it would produce,” according to a report from Oregon Public Broadcasting.
But the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, in its own review of the transportation agency’s report, questions its conclusions. In estimating the costs and benefits to the rail industry itself, the GAO notes that the DOT was provided extensive quantifiable data from only two of five railroads asked to provide information.
The administration’s review does not appear to account for the costs of derailments. Response and cleanup of the derailment in Mosier totaled an estimated $9 million, which Union Pacific was responsible for.
Nor does it appear the DOT or the industry devoted much effort to studying the safety of the estimated 25 million Americans who live along the nation’s oil train routes.
The GAO notes that the DOT report found that the electronically controlled brakes could reduce the number of cars derailed by 20 percent compared to conventional air brakes, but its review also faults the DOT report for relying on information that was not transparent and couldn’t be verified by independent researchers. Instead, the DOT cited a second study, prepared by the rail industry itself, that found only a “marginal” safety benefit.
More bluntly, the GAO report notes that the Department of Transportation “may have been hampered in its efforts” to determine the safety benefits of the new braking system because the railroads provided only limited data on their performance.
The GAO, in its report recommended that the Department of Transportation acknowledge the uncertainty in its review of the economic and safety benefits of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, collect the necessary data from the railroads and publish additional information.
As it has with other moves to reverse regulations and actions of previous administrations, the Trump administration has demonstrated a lack of concern about its rush to overturn earlier decisions and the potential for consequences involving the safety of the public and impacts on the environment.
Until the Department of Transportation has thoroughly and transparently reviewed the actual costs and benefits of the earlier rule — one that sought to update a 19th-century technology — the Trump administration needs to put the brakes on itself.