Sunday, October 20, 2013

Canada Requires Additional Testing of Crude for Rail Shipments

As part of the continuing Canadian government response to the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec derailment, fire and explosions in July the Transport Canada issued a new Protective Direction (#31) ordering additional testing of crude oil being imported into Canada or being offered for transportation in Canada. This order is much more specific and legally binding than the similar recommendation offered by PHMSA in August.

Canadian Order

The Canadian order requires that any “any person engaged in importing or offering crude oil for transport to immediately test the classification of crude oil being imported, handled, offered for transport or transported as UN 1267, or UN 1993, if the classification testing has not been conducted since July 7, 2013, and to provide those test results to Transport Canada upon request”.

For any shipments where such additional testing has not been done since July 7th the directive requires that a default classification of “Class 3 Flammable Liquid Packing Group (PG) I “ must be applied to the material and the packaging and shipping documentation should reflect the PG I shipping requirements set forth in Canadian regulations.

FRA/PHMSA Advisory

On August 7th the US Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration issued a safety advisory that addressed the results of the same Canadian incident. It took a much more lenient stance on the crude re-testing requirement, recommending that:

“Offerors evaluate their processes to ensure that hazardous materials are properly classed and described in accordance with the HRM.”

There is a long distance between ‘evaluating processes’ and ‘additional testing’. The earlier FRA-PHMSA advisory was based upon sketchy evidence available at the time that at least some of the oil in the railcars was more flammable that was reflected in the shipping papers and rail car selection. I would assume that the more recent Canadian order is based upon later and better evidence indicating misclassification.

The Problem

In a blog posting about the FRA-PHMSA advisory I noted that:

One of the potential issues raised in this accident is the flammability of crude oil. Different sources and blends of crude oil have different flash points. This is reflected in the three different Packing Groups that may be used for the classification of crude oil as a Class 3 hazardous material. Those Packing Groups in-turn have an impact on what types of rail cars may be used to transport crude oil. This has potential safety implications if the crude oil has a lower flash point than reflected in the shipping paperwork and an improper rail car selection is made.

I suspect that it would be common practice in the oil industry to test the crude from a single source one time and assume that that is the classification for all of the crude from that source. A good argument could be made supporting that assumption. It certainly would make ordering railcars to ship that crude much simpler.

I don’t see anything in the HMR that requires that the contents of each rail to be specifically tested. An argument would be made by regulators that the HMR (and I would suppose the Canadian equivalents) requires that, since each railcar load needs to be properly characterized {49 CFR §171.1(b)} on the shipping papers, the shipper has the responsibility to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that classification is properly made. Thus shippers could make whatever assumptions they want about a material, but if PHMSA or FRA found the material to be improperly classified, the shipper would be responsible.

Of course, this would mean that government inspectors would need to open and sample the material for testing to detect an improperly characterized crude oil shipment. This is specifically authorized under 49 CFR Part 109. I really doubt that PHMSA would stop a crude oil train to sample each car, but stranger things have happened. Short of that, there is no real way for PHMSA to effectively enforce a mandate for individual car testing. That may be why the FRA-PHMSA advisory was worded as a process review recommendation rather than a testing mandate.

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