How a GOP Rep Is Delaying Safety Improvements for "Bomb Trains"

“I just want to make sure that we are all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together on improving that industry.”

Those were the words of Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials on February 3rd at a hearing titled “How the Changing Energy Markets Will Affect U.S. Transportation.” He was directing this advice to Greg Saxton, chief engineer for rail tank car manufacturer Greenbrier.

Denham obviously had a bone to pick with Saxton because prior to the hearing the Modesto Bee, a newspaper in Denham’s home district, ran an editorial making a strong case that the existing tank cars used to transport crude oil are unsafe. The editorial, “Delays on safer rail cars are unacceptable,” didn’t mince words. It was clear on what should happen: “The DOT [Department of Transportation] should adopt rules for those cars then set deadlines to replace every single tank car in America. Our elected representatives should insist on it.”

In Modesto, the elected representative who should be insisting on that is Jeff Denham.

Modesto is also home to Greenbrier’s manufacturing facilities and the editorial quoted Saxton for its conclusion noting his position on the lack of new regulations. “We just need a decision. Twenty years is too long.”

This is not the tune that Chairman Denham wants everyone to be singing. In his comments to Saxton at the hearing he explained his intent.

“I’m making sure that the wrong people are not talking to the Ed boards across the country that would give a wrong perception of our current situation.”

Apparently Saxton is one of the “wrong people” to talk to editorial boards because of his insistence on adhering to the facts. Denham went on to explain what he wants the American public to hear, while of course taking a shot at the Obama administration for good measure.

Rep. Denham said:

“I want to make sure as the administration drags their feet or reorganizes or does some shuffling that there is not a misperception out there in the American public that a) that our current tank cars are not safe, that our industry does not have a safe record and, most importantly, that there is not some magic quick fast track to get all of these new tank cars online very, very quickly.”

Where would the American public get the “misperception” that current oil-by-rail tank cars aren’t safe?  Perhaps from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has raised concerns repeatedly about the DOT-111 tank cars for the last 20 years

This year, the NTSB added the issue of rail tank car safety to its Most Wanted List of items to improve transportation safety. Last year, an NTSB board member testified that using theDOT-111 rail cars to transport crude oil posed an “unacceptable public risk.

The American public may also have noticed that a couple days after Denham’s talk about telling the American public that rail tank cars are safe, a train carrying ethanol derailed, rail cars were punctured, caught fire and spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River.

The main argument Denham and the oil and rail industries are making is that it just isn’t possible to replace all of the DOT-111 cars on the schedule proposed by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

In an earlier Senate hearing on this topic, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), claimed that the DOT’s timeline for replacing the unsafe cars was “unattainable.

Meanwhile, Saxton, the chief engineer at the largest tank car manufacturer claims the industry can meet the deadlines, a point Greenbrier has made throughout the past year regarding this issue and one that is included in the proposed regulations from July 2014. This isn’t a new idea.

As reported on DeSmog almost a year ago, the reason the industry is fighting against these timelines to replace the cars is that they need the cars to meet the increasing industry demand to move crude by rail. Instead of replacing the old unsafe cars, the industry wants to simply add any new cars to the fleet that is moving crude oil. 

In this debate — and the debate on what to do about the explosive nature of the Bakken crude oil moved in the DOT-111’s — the industry and its champions in congress like Rep. Denham, continue to engage in finger-pointing and obfuscation to make it appear like these claims are reasonable.

“I know that you have a PR [public relations] staff that is very busy working with a lot of op-ed boards around the country,” Denham said to Saxton, “So as they continue to have those discussions I want to make sure they are dealing with some factual information.”

Rep. Denham did not go on to provide any factual information to dispute Saxton’s claims. What he did was use an example to try to make his case that ignored the facts.

“125,000 tanks cars in the fleet currently today. You have the capacity to build how many… 8,000 a year?” Denham asked Saxton, who confirmed that this was true. “So if you were building 8,000 a year the backlog would be about a decade.”

Although Denham’s “about a decade math” is shaky based on the numbers he was using (125/8=15.6), the industry wants a decade to replace the dangerous rail cars, so that is the answer they always get when they do their math.

However, the whole premise is completely misleading. The facts are that no one is saying that 125,000 tank cars need to be replaced and the rail tank car industry has a much greater capacity than 8,000 cars per year.

The proposed regulations note that there are currently 22,800 non-jacketed DOT-111 tank cars in use for crude oil, and an additional 5,500 jacketed DOT-111’s. 

The current industry capacity for new rail tank car production is 35,000 per year.

So when Rep. Denham says “I want to see some numbers” — he is bluffing because he knows that the numbers tell a far different story than the tune he is singing. 

At the Feb. 3 hearing, Denham’s behavior illustrated again how these public hearings are merely public relations spectacles designed to send an industry-approved message to the American public.

Meanwhile, the real discussions about the new regulations are happening in private meetings between industry and its regulators. In these private meetings the industry lobbies against new tank cars, new braking systems, making the oil safer, and any speed limits for the trains.

Rep. Denham wants the American public to believe there isn’t “some magic quick fast track” way to replace the unsafe tank cars and that it is going to take a decade.

The reality is that the industry has the capacity to replace the tank cars on the timeline in the proposed regulations and there is no need to wait a decade to address this “unacceptable public risk.”

But since doing that would cut into industry profits, the industry and its representatives in congress maintain this is “unattainable.”

They’re singing from the same songbook, and that should scare every American living near the bomb train blast zone.

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