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The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the the train derailment and explosion in Casselton, North Dakota. A train carrying crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota derailed and exploded outside the city limits.
But an investigation into the safety of shipping crude oil from the Bakken Shale has been ongoing since this summer.
The crude oil that is extracted from the Bakken Shale through the process of hydraulic fracturing has raised concerns that the chemicals used in the process make the crude oil explosive and corrodes rail tank cars.
These concerns have led the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to conduct spot inspections of the oil called the Bakken Blitz.
The investigation may lead to a re-classification of Bakken crude as a more hazardous substance than crude oil that is extracted from other locations.
Angela Greiling Keane, a reporter for Bloomberg News, joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the ongoing investigation.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board are continuing their examination of what could have caused that massive explosion of a derailed oil tanker in Casselton, North Dakota.
Here's NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
ROBERT SUMWALT: The signal system, as we indicated, no anomalies there, track, no anomalies there. We did identify the point of derailment. We have identified this broken axle that we'll be interested in. We'll want to know was it the actual - the cause of the derailment, or was it broken during the derailment?
CHAKRABARTI: The NTSB also says that interviews with train crews could begin today. But, it turns out that for several months, two other federal agencies have been investigating safety issues surrounding rail transport of Bakken crude, the same crude that exploded in a trail derailment in Quebec this summer that killed 47 people. And what the agencies found concerned them enough to write a strongly worded letter to the American Petroleum Institute about the proper handling of Bakken crude.
Angela Greiling Keane is a reporter for Bloomberg News, and she's been following this story for several months now. And, Angela, tell us more about this other investigation. First of all, crude oil can burn, but it isn't usually so wildly combustible. But railroad investigators think that byproducts of the fracking process, such as hydrogen sulfide, might be making it more explosive?
ANGELA GREILING KEANE: Right. The Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration - they're both parts of the U.S. Transportation Department - are looking at this. And they announced last summer something they're calling the Bakken Blitz. So what they're doing with that is spot inspections of oil that's been shipped from North Dakota, and they're looking at how it is packaged, how it's marked on the trains. And they're going inside the tank cars and testing it to see the composition of the crude, to see if it's more explosive than what would be expected.
And what could come out of this could be rules requiring stronger tank cars. It could be rules requiring different labeling, different handling. Potentially, certain shipments wouldn't be allowed by rail, but no one said that that would happen at this point. But those are things that could be end results from this research, from this inspection blitz.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. And, in fact, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt took a question on exactly this issue at a press conference yesterday. So let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SUMWALT: Was the product that was carried properly classified? And we want to check the shipping records and make sure of all of that. That will be part of the investigation.
CHAKRABARTI: Angela, I guess the question is: Do you see anything in your reporting that indicates that there may be a push to give the crude coming out of North Dakota a higher hazard rating?
KEANE: There certainly could be, and that matters because it's helped first responders know what to do. It helps the railroads know what they're carrying. When railroads accept a shipment of anything - not just of crude, but of any product - they trust the shipper, the entity that tendered them the shipment, to have labeled it properly. So, railroads typically don't open tank cars and test the content because, for some things, that wouldn't even be safe to open up the car.
They need to know what they're carrying, so that they can place the cars properly within their train configuration, so that they route things in the most safe ways. All those sorts of factors come into play. And what this could end up being eventually would be a requirement that crude be considered a - or at least crude coming out of this region be considered a more hazardous material than it currently is.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Now, there's another thing about the fracking process that you've reported on that a lot of people are paying attention to. And that is that there seems to be hydrochloric acid that's used to extract the oil from the shale, and that acid may be actually corroding the tanker cars that are transporting the crude?
KEANE: There's been concern about these tank cars for a long time, apart from this latest issue. The tank cars are called DOT-111s, and they're extremely common. They're the type of cars that were used in this Burlington Northern Santa Fe train and North Dakota this week. They're used in many, many trains. They're an older type of tank car, but they are extremely pervasive throughout the fleet in North America of tank cars. And the owners of the cars are not excited about having to do any sort of retrofits or having to replace them because, obviously, that would be an expensive prospect.
But there's concern that the cars may not be built to withstand crashes at the speed which they often occur. And if they are being corroded by any sort of chemical use and fracking, that would be one more possible issue with those cars that many in Washington have called for replacing already.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. I see. I mean, you're reporting that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York called...
CHAKRABARTI: ...exactly for the DOT-111 car to be phased out. Now, once again, a reporter asked...
Right. I see. I mean, you're reporting that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York called - exactly - for the DOT-111 car to be phased out. Now, once again, a reporter asked NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt about the cars in the North Dakota explosion. So let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SUMWALT: We have preliminary information that indicates there are DOT-111 cars, but there are different types of DOT-111 cars. So we will want to be confirming that.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, the NTSB also estimates that, what, almost 70 percent of today's rail tank car fleet has a high incidence of tank failure during accidents. But, Angela, I'm wondering the growth of the transport of North Dakota crude by rail has been enormous in the past couple of years. You would think that the railroad companies and all the third-party vendors who are part of this massive supply chain, maybe they haven't had a lot of time to do the necessary equipment and line upgrades to carry this crude oil out of North Dakota.
KEANE: Right. This growth really has been amazing. Right now, North Dakota is producing about 790,000 barrels a day, and rails carry more than three-quarters of that. Pipelines takes longer to be built. Obviously, we see with Keystone Pipeline building, it's controversial and it's an environmental concern. So for rails, it's easier to ramp up quickly and carry those shipments.
It's actually the shippers, not the railroads, that own the tank cars. So railroads can want their shippers to improve equipment also. But they're not ultimately the ones that are regulated when it comes to purchasing new tank cars or retrofitting the existing ones.
CHAKRABARTI: And, finally, Angela, just returning to that Bakken blitz that you mentioned earlier, that joint investigation between the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Has anything else come out of that investigation that could change the way oil is moved around the country?
KEANE: Right. Well, that's still ongoing. It started last summer, and what the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration told me earlier this week is that they are winding down that investigation but it is - it's still going. So there's no conclusions at this point, but hopefully we will some results out of that soon, find out what they learned. There also is an ongoing rule-making process, which is another thing that's not quick at that agency and at the Federal Railroad Administration on the tank cars. So that's the other area of action to watch in Washington on this issue.
CHAKRABARTI: Angela Greiling Keane is a reporter for Bloomberg News, talking to us about federal level investigations in oil transport via rail. Angela, thank you so very much for your reporting and for your time.
KEANE: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let us know what you think about this issue. Should oil be transported by rail cars? Let us know at hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.