Traditionally, pipelines and oceangoing tankers deliver the majority of crude oil to U.S. refineries. Since 2010, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has found that other modes of transportation — rail, barge and truck — have accounted for an increasing volume of crude oil shipments.

With an increase in rail shipments came an uptick in incidents. Between 2013-2016, 13 derailment accidents resulted in loss of life and millions of dollars in destruction of property and the environment. These high-profile incidents sparked a demand for regulations that would mitigate future environmental impacts and initiate prompt remedial action.

Even as more oil is being carried via rail, railroads continue to operate under loose regulations for oil spill response plans — regulations that have been on the books since 1996. Rail cars carrying 3,500 gallons or more of petroleum are required to have a basic response plan, and rail cars transporting more than 42,000 gallons must have a comprehensive oil spill response plan. With a typical rail car capacity of 30,000 gallons, most current rail carriers transporting petroleum oil do not need to have a comprehensive oil spill response plan under the 1996 final rule.

Lessons Learned From Pipeline Response Plans

In order to inform updates to rail oil spill plan regulations, PHMSA, in coordination with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), turned to current pipeline response plan regulations.

Like pipelines, rail cars also transport oil along linear routes — through residential areas, beside agricultural lands and over critical waterways. Professionals with decades of environmental emergency response plan experience in pipeline services provided best practices and lessons learned for rail regulations.

Strengthened Rail Oil Spill Response Preparedness

In February, PHMSA and FRA established new regulations to improve oil spill response readiness and mitigate effects of rail incidents involving petroleum oil. These new regulations, which took effect April 1, hold the rail industry accountable to plan and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

This final rule applies to high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) transporting petroleum oil in a block of 20 or more loaded tank cars and trains with a total of 35 loaded petroleum oil tank cars. The federal Department of Transportation estimates this applies to 73 railroad operators.

Under this final rule, a railroad’s comprehensive oil spill response plan must:

  • Establish geographic response zones along all rail routes.
  • Coordinate staged and prepared personnel and equipment to respond in the event of an accident.
  • Identify the qualified individual responsible for each response zone.
  • Identify the organization, personnel and equipment capable of removing a worst-case discharge.
  • Provide information about HHFTs to state and tribal emergency response commissions in accordance with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015.
  • Divide rail routes into response zones that connect notification procedures and available response resources to the specific geographic area for the covered route segments, to see that response resources are staged within 12 hours of any point along the route.

Railroads need to submit their response plans to PHSMA for review by Aug. 27, 2019. PHSMA will then have up to two years to review these plans and provide feedback. During this review period, railroads can continue to operate as usual until the PHSMA responds to the review. Once approved, plans must be put into practical application and resubmitted every five years for review.


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Venessa Pottie is a senior environmental scientist at Burns & McDonnell, focused on environmental regulatory compliance, site assessments and permitting. She has over 30 years of experience as an environmental scientist, specializing in discharge monitoring reports, wastewater, air permits and spill prevention, control and countermeasure plans.