Sunday, January 31, 2016

HR 4397 Introduced – Rail Oil Spill Response

On Thursday Rep. Kind (D,WI) introduced HR 4397, the Rail Safety Act. The bill would require FEMA to preposition fire-fighting equipment and other rail spill response equipment for accidents involving rail tank cars transporting crude oil or other flammable liquids.

Pre-Positioned Equipment

The bill would require that the equipment caches would include {§2(b)}:

• Firefighting equipment;
• Fire suppression agents; and
• Any other safety equipment considered necessary by the Administrator

The caches would be required to be placed {§2(c)}:

• Located along rail routes over which a high volume of high-hazard trains operate; and
• Strategically prepositioned along such routes in a manner that lowers the response time of firefighters.


The bill provides for two separate sources of funding for these caches. First it authorizes FEMA to collect fees from rail carriers. Second it authorizes appropriations to support the program. In neither case are any specific monetary amounts specified.

Moving Forward

Kind is not a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, the committee to which this bill was referred for consideration. Without being a member of the Committee, it is unlikely that he will be able to influence the Committee to begin consideration of the bill.

If the bill were to be considered, I would expect that there would be considerable opposition to the bill from railroads since they would be subject to unspecified fees to support the program.


This bill is extraordinarily poorly written for an 18-year veteran of Congress. Kind does not, for instance, define ‘high volume of high-hazard trains’. It would have been easier to refer to high-hazard flammable trains defined under 49 CFR 171.8. Next, there is no requirement to report to Congress on the types and amounts of equipment (along with deployment costs) to be deployed under the requirements of this bill so that Congress could authorize spending.

It is a shame that Kind has not put a little more thought and effort into this legislation. The issue of responding to crude oil, ethanol and other flammable train derailments as a fire fighting issue has been grossly missed by Congress. This type of bill, with a few modifications, could serve a valuable aid to first responders to these potentially devastating railroad accidents.

The funding issue deserves a lot more thought. The railroads are not the ones responsible for the recent increase in the number of these high-hazard flammable trains. They are required by Congress to accept all properly presented rail loadings. This was done by Congress because the individual railroads have nearly monopolistic control over long distance rail shipping in many areas of the country. The people that are responsible for the large amount of hazardous chemical shipments are the shippers. And it is they, not the railroads, that should be required to pay fees to help off-set the cost of programs like this.

If this had been a serious attempt to address this serious problem, it would have started off with a more complete definition of the types of shipments that were targeted. Since the types of fire-fighting equipment (in particular the types of foam used to fight liquid chemical fires) are substantially defined by the types of chemical fires involved it would be more cost effective to focus on the two largest volume flammable liquids currently being shipped by rail; crude oil and ethanol.

Next the bill should have required a report by the DOT’s Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) as to the types of specialty equipment necessary to fight crude oil and ethanol fires associated with train derailments. The study would address:

• The types of equipment necessary;
• The time frame in which the equipment would have to be deployed to be successfully used;
• The training necessary to use the deployed equipment;
• The best methods for ensuring that the equipment was readily available;
• And the cost of pre-stocking the equipment and supplying the appropriate training for its use.

While pre-stocking sites along rail routes (as suggested in this bill) is certainly one way to ensure rapid availability, other options could be more effective. One in particular that I would like to see considered is to include a fire response car at the tail end of each high-hazard flammable train. Another possible option that could be considered would be the formation of air-deployable National Guard units trained and equipped to provide the necessary flammable liquid fire-fighting capabilities.

With better information on the amounts and types of equipment to be stockpiled and the type and frequency of training necessary to deploy the equipment clearly outlined, Congress could then weigh-in on a specific funding program that could include fees on each railcar of affected commodities shipped and/or authorization of direct Federal spending.

The basic idea behind this bill is sound, but a great deal more effort and imagination needed to be employed in its crafting. Perhaps the leadership of the House or Senate transportation committees might like to take a shot at this.

1 comment:

triecker said...

Great post and commentary on this bill. I appreciate your feedback on my blog post about the same issues. The conclusions you arrive at in your commentary are great and took a different route than mine but I think we agree on the same issues. All in all, this was a bill with good intentions, but lacked good thought and presentation, so is likely to fail. I agree that the ideas on funding were interesting... similar to the model followed for preparedness in nuclear power plant emergency areas (although, as you point out, the rail carriers aren't the best target for this). I'm sure we will see some different bills introduced in the near future with the same intent.

Thanks for your article and the comments you posted on mine.


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