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The U.S. Department of Transportation finally appears ready to give some teeth to regulations that would require oil transporters to improve the safety of their shipments. Following several recent oil spills and explosive train derailments, the DOT has begun taking action to bring the industry in line.

According to a recently issued order, the DOT says that all crude oil shippers will be required to conduct detailed tests of all products being transported by rail and then designate each as either a moderate or high-risk material. The testing and designations must happen before the goods can be loaded onto the nation’s railway system, hopefully making it easier for railroad operators to plan routes that avoid major population centers and thus minimize the risk of another disaster.

To strengthen the rules, the DOT took the surprising step of saying any shippers that fail to abide by the regulations laid out in the order could face prison time, up to 10 years. Given the potentially serious punishments that could be handed down, the hope is that oil shippers make important and badly needed changes to the way they manage the shipment of highly dangerous substances.

DOT officials say that an investigation by inspectors discovered that many shippers have for years wrongly classified crude oil cargo as a low-risk material. In reality, crude oil should be classified as either moderate or high-risk, depending on the circumstances of the specific shipment. Not only have the risks been underestimated, but a lack of proper chemical testing has led to instances where crude oil has been shipped in railroad tanker cars that are not appropriate for the substance.

Safety experts heralded the DOT’s move, with some saying that misclassification of oil represents an imminent threat and presents the all too real risk of death or serious injury to those working on trains as well as those living near railroad tracks. The disaster last summer in Canada where a train carrying oil derailed and led to the deaths of 47 people and a wide scale evacuation of neighboring towns is precisely what the new rules are meant to avoid. The hope is that by taking a firm stand, the DOT can impress upon the railroads and oil transporters how crucial it is to increase the safety of moving their product.

The DOT’s actions sent a clear signal to those in the industry that changes are long overdue and that the government intends to step in to solve problems that the industry has so far failed to satisfactorily address. We can only hope that the government continues its push to increase safety of the nation’s railroads so that future disasters might be avoided.


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