One year after New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed a petition for rulemaking to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) that would require all crude oil transported by rail train in the U.S. to achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi), PHMSA announced in December 2016 that it will “seek comment on vapor pressure thresholds, and will evaluate the potential safety benefits of utilizing a threshold in regulating the transport of crude oil and other dangerous materials."
For those who are not science nerds, vapor pressure is a key driver of oil’s explosiveness and flammability in the event that a train car transporting it derails. The most cited example of increased flammability caused by high vapor pressure is the derailed train in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, where a derailed train burst into flames, destroying the downtown area by wiping out over 30 buildings, and killing 47 people. More examples can be found on this page that tracks accidents involving "bomb trains," which carry dangerous materials.
Attorney General Schneiderman points out that the level of vapor pressure is not regulated in the United States, and calls it a loophole that currently allows highly flammable crude oil to be routinely shipped by rail through communities in New York and across the country. He also notes that the vapor pressure of the crude involved in train accidents is frequently not disclosed, according to his government website that published his statement applauding PHMSA’s announcement to seek public comment in 2017. He is seeking for the vapor pressure to be less than 9.0 pounds per square inch (psi). His comment in full:
“I applaud the federal government for recognizing the need to address the danger that crude oil shipments pose to communities across New York State. In New York, trains carrying millions of gallons of crude oil routinely travel through our cities and towns without any limit on its explosiveness or flammability — which makes crude oil more likely to catch fire and explode in train accidents. The federal government’s commitment to initiate a rulemaking marks a long overdue first step towards reducing the danger to residents in harm’s way of oil trains in New York and across the country.”
Even though PHMSA announced that the public comment would open December 30, 2016, and go until February 28, 2017, the public comment page at regulations.gov has not been published yet as of January 3, 2017. The comment page is seeking feedback on the vapor pressure limit only, not on trains coming through towns in general. When called by A Little Beacon Blog to confirm location of the comment page, a customer service representative at regulations.gov confirmed that the docket had been created at regulations.gov, but had not been published yet, and was awaiting rulemaking before being published. Several calls to associated offices made by A Little Beacon Blog yielded no definitive answer on when the comment page would be made live. When the comment page becomes available, it will apparently be available at https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=PHMSA-2016-0077
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