Deadly tanker cars pose threat to rail communities - KTIV News 4 Sioux City IA: News, Weather and Sports

Deadly tanker cars pose threat to rail communities

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KTIV) -

For nearly two centuries trains have transported cargo from coast to coast, playing an important role in the nation's economy.

Founded as a railroad town, Sioux City saw its economy centered on rail from the start.

Thanks to an oil boom rail traffic through town is gaining steam, again.

A recent rail study projected a 200% increase in rail tons by the year 2030.  One of Sioux City's railroads has already met that mark.  It only took, six years.

Driving that increase is oil.  The number off trains carrying petroleum through Sioux City is expected to increase by 156% by 2030.       

Hazardous material traveling in and out of Sioux City will see a similar increase.

"We are seeing more tanker cars coming through Sioux City," stated Sioux City Fire Chief Tom Everett.

And with that, grows the danger of trouble on the tracks.

"We think about rail a lot," admitted Everett.

One reason is the  big black tanker cars you see rumbling through, have been blamed for several deadly accidents. In, 2009 a train carrying ethanol derailed in Cherry Valley, Illinois killing one woman after the tanks cracked and caught fire.  Thousands of those same tankers travel right through town.

"I expect that to increase as the production continues to increase," Everett pointed out.

Concerns about these tankers, known as DOT-111's, date back decades, as shown in a 1991 letter from the NTSB to the Federal Railroad Association. In it, Chairman James Kolstad says the protection provided by DOT-111 tanks is inadequate.   More recently, an NTSB report reveals a high incidence of tank failure.  They're known to crack, leak, and lose flammable, hazardous liquid, like oil and ethanol.  Explosions in Quebec killed close to 50 people.

"It's a terrible thing.  I mean, we might all of a sudden have to be evacuated," Camille Lydon, another Leeds resident worried.

According to the Association of American Railroads there are 310,000 tankers cars, and 240,000 are DOT 111's. Only 25% of the fleet has been replaced.  Forty-thousand are dedicated to transporting ethanol across the county.  Siouxland Ethanol leases 180 cars and tankers to transport their products.  General Manager Chuck Hofland says replacing rail tankers won't happen overnight.

"The fleet that's out there, not only for ethanol, but crude oil, think about the number it would take and the time it would take to rebuild all of them, it would take a number of years," explained Hofland of the backlog in the rail industry.

That news hits too close for comfort for homeowners in Leeds.

"We've been lucky that there hasn't been anything," said Leeds homeowner Wanda Lynch.

After the deadly Cherry Valley incident, the AAR did raise the standards for all new rail tankers above the federal government's requirements.

With the existing fleet having a life expectancy of 30-more-years, the NTSB is pushing for existing rail cars to be upgraded.

A public comment period on that provision ended the first week of November.

Sioux City's fire chief says he's concerned about the growing number of trains bringing oil from North Dakota.

"If something goes wrong, it can impact a very large area," he said.

The Sioux City fire department trains for such disasters.  A DOT 111 tanker was actually donated by one of the railroad companies to the department.

"We're prepared for whatever it's going to take for any emergencies, including rail," said Everett.

Lawmakers have pushed for tougher standards.  Hofland is not losing sleep over what some deem a dangerous design flaw.

"When you look at the shear volume of something that gets transported, and occasionally there's something that happens. I would suggest that the incident rate is pretty low," said Hofland.

Chief Everett agreed.

"Rail traffic in general is pretty doggone safe," said Everett.  "They carry so much product that when something does go wrong it's certainly a situation that we need a lot of resources to handle," he added.

That's why he's joined those advocating the existing fleet, be retrofitted with tougher shells.

"And maybe a faster phase-out period for the old cars," he said.

The AAR says it would cost a billion dollars to retrofit the tankers, and that the cost of derailments over the past five years was just $64 million.  For those living along the tracks, there's no price tag on safety.

Click on the links to learn more about the issue:

National Transportation Safety Board Report on DOT 111 Tankers

Association of American Railroads DOT 111 Policy

Hazardous Rail Petition

1991 NTSB Letter on DOT 111 Tankers

DOT 111 Senate Proposal

Economic Impact of Rail in Iowa

Map of Rail in Iowa

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