Conflicting Transport and EPA Rules – from the Archives

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To move forward, we must remember the past. Environmental and health and safety regulations are largely built on disasters and failures of our predecessors. A friend of mine recently brought up the numerous railway spills in the 1980s and 1990s by Union Pacific. These spills were mostly settled in 2000 and Union Pacific paid a fine of $800,000 (EPA SourceNews). However, one of the most interesting spills was outlined by the New York Times in 1991. The spill in question was of a powerful pesticide, metam sodium, that was regulated by the EPA, but not by the Federal Railroad Administration.

“By far the most important weakness in safety rules that were disclosed by the accident was a yawning gap in regulations for shipping metam sodium and almost every other pesticide”

The accident happened when Southern Pacific train No. 9693 was climbing through the narrow canyons of northern California on its way to Oregon. As the 97-car train crossed a bridge it jerked for reasons still unknown and the last of its four locomotives was lifted completely off the tracks and flipped over, taking with it the next six cars. One of the six cars was a tanker that pitched off the bridge onto sharp rocks that penetrated the steel tank, releasing into the river 19,000 gallons of metam sodium. Hundreds of thousands of fish were wiped out in a 45-mile stretch of river and virtually all plant life was killed.

One of the six cars was a tanker that pitched off the bridge onto sharp rocks that penetrated the steel tank, releasing into the river 19,000 gallons of metam sodium. Hundreds of thousands of fish were wiped out in a 45-mile stretch of river and virtually all plant life was killed.

Only after police and fire officials called an emergency chemical information center in Washington, did the region become aware of the peril caused by the spill. Mike Furtney, a spokesman at Southern Pacific’s offices in San Francisco, said the lack of information almost certainly turned a bad accident into an environmental disaster.

Because metam sodium was not considered a hazardous material by the Department of Transportation, the tank car that carried it had none of the hazardous substances labels. The crew had no idea that they were hauling a very dangerous compound and how to respond if there were an accident. All the train crew knew about the chemical was what was written on the cargo manifest: “Weed and tree-killing compound.”

The crew had no idea that they were hauling a very dangerous compound and how to respond if there were an accident.

Also, the pesticide was being hauled in a tank car model 111A, that the National Transportation Safety Board had repeatedly said was too flimsy to haul hazardous materials. Yet most of the 1.5 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped by rail each year were carried in those cars. The safety board had urged the Department of Transportation to order tank car owners to install heavy steel caps, called head shields, on both ends to make the cars more resistant to punctures but the department had questioned the need and cited the cost. Installing head shields on 111A tank cars would have cost $15,000 to $20,000 for each car.

Also, the pesticide was being hauled in a tank car model 111A, that the National Transportation Safety Board had repeatedly said was too flimsy to haul hazardous materials. Yet most of the 1.5 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped by rail each year were carried in those cars.

Had the tank cars been equipped with head shields, they might have not have punctured and an environmental disaster could have been avoided. Despite the accident, the cars were not retired and history soon repeated itself in 2013, when the same cars led to the one of the worst ever accidents in Candian history – Lac Megantic.

Despite the accident, the cars were not retired and history soon repeated itself in 2013, when the same cars led to the one of the worst ever accidents in Candian history – Lac Megantic.

This 30-year-old accident is a reminder that a fundamental EHS challenge of confusing and conflicting regulations is not new. In this particular case, Southern Pacific relied on the Federal Railroad Administration rules and did not search for stricter regulations by other agencies such as the EPA. Taking a more comprehensive compliance approach would have allowed them to pick up on all of their requirements and not just the ones they thought were applicable. Southern Pacific felt they only needed to assess their compliance to the Federal Railroad Administration regulations and this led to a major incident. Implementing a comprehensive compliance program such as our 7 Step approach (PDF) would have allowed them to determine what the toughest standards were and potentially work towards those.

Southern Pacific relied on the Federal Railroad Administration rules and did not search for stricter regulations by other agencies such as the EPA. Taking a more comprehensive compliance approach would have allowed them to pick up on all of their requirements and not just the ones they thought were applicable.

The second element that could have been tackled was the use of 111A tank cars. Despite this accident and many more, it took over 30 years for the government to formally require the retirement of these tank cars. As we discussed in our Comprehensive Compliance Webinar, the Lac Megantic rail disaster in 2013 killed 47 people and it was largely due to the use of old tank cars that various agencies had recommended changing for decades. Implementing comprehensive compliance also means identifying best practices and recommendations and how you can get a head start on them.

What do you think of this? Let me know at jbrun@nimonik.com

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