Almost 400,000 railway tank cars, each carrying 700 barrels of petroleum crude oil, will be traversing the US this year - wouldn't you want them to be securely loaded?
With the number of crude oil shipments by rail continuing to rise, safety and NAR's have become an overriding concern. In this second blog, in a series of 5, Parker's ISS Division speaks with Karl Alexy, Staff Director of the Hazardous Materials Division of the Federal Railroad Administration U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), to discuss how to reduce both human and component error.
Unequivocal data has focused the U.S. DOT attention on liquid lines and manways as the most prone components to cause NAR's. According to Mr. Alexy, "liquid lines and manways are coming under increased scrutiny from the DOT. These are the two components that are opened and closed all the time. Since these components are handled all the time, there's the factor of human errors."
Failures such as inadequately torqued manway bolts, gasket mis-alignments and unintentional gasket mutilation have become accidental, yet accepted marginal consequences of shipping hazardous materials, resulting in concerted emphasis on newer facilities. It was Mr. Alexy's words on current procedures that most stood out. "We're focusing on facilities that are shipping crude for the first time due to the shale oil boom. The personnel at these plants are trying hard, but there's a lack of institutional knowledge and experience."
In other words, all that exists is a list of 'best practices'. Its the principal measure of safety being a number of suggested guidelines, many of which ultimately amount to a visual inspection, rather than a definitive set of standards.
Fortunately the DOT is stressing stricter and more frequent checks and balances to reduce manway seal-related NAR's. Mr. Alexy explains, "Until now, tank car owners were able to self-determine how often a car gets qualified - cleaned, inspected and tested - with time periods not to exceed 10 years. The government is cracking down on that, saying once every 10 years may not be 'good enough.
Mr. Alexy continues, "Just a few months ago, anyone could put a new bolt on a manway" leaving no-one accountable for the work required to seal properly. Upon further investigation, it was determined that substandard bolts and additional safety requirements were not being met, also adding to the NAR problem. Consequently, lids were not sealed correctly.
Currently, the government simply dictates that railway tank cars cannot leak. Similarly, it would rather not be required to draft new regulations, for fear of stifling engineering and procedural improvements within the industry. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for the DOT to be more involved in the process of loading and unloading tank cars, according to Mr. Alexy.
The overall safe transportation of hazardous materials has moved into the public spotlight and very much onto the government's radar. The dramatic increase in railcar shipments and with it, the heightened opportunity for NAR's, has brought about the need for immediate response. Can the industry be relied upon to correct its shortcomings or should the DOT instate new regulations?
For more on this topic, read Non-Accidental Releases (NAR's) in Railroad Tank Cars.