Trump Rule Change Will Bring Advent of ‘Bomb Trains,’ Groups Warn

A liquefied natural gas export facility under construction near Quintana, Texas, in 2018. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two weeks after the neglected storage of highly combustible ammonium nitrate caused a devastating explosion in Lebanon, six environmental groups urged the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday to stop the United States from ushering in a new era of so-called bomb trains.

“There’s a very good reason liquefied natural gas has never been shipped by rail in this country, and that’s because it’s wildly unsafe,” Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council — one of five groups challenging the rule — said in a statement. “I don’t want these dangerous trains going through my neighborhood and trust me, you don’t either.”

If they escape containment, liquefied natural gasses have the ability to expand by 600 times their volume to become highly flammable gasses with explosive potential. In Cleveland, Ohio, in 1944, 131 people were killed after liquefied gasses ignited and ripped through an entire mile of the city.

Federal law stipulates that liquefied natural gasses can only be safely transported in trucks and specific tank cars approved by the Federal Railroad Administration and the United Nations. Those tank cars aren’t allowed to be filled to their full capacity, either, due to safety concerns.

For the last year, however, at President Donald Trump’s request, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been studying whether rail transport of liquefied natural gas could be done safely — a move that would exponentially increase productivity as tanker rail cars can hold three times the volume of the portable tanks approved by the U.N.

Citing the track record of rail cars in safety transporting other cryogenic flammable material, the agency issued a new rule on July 24 determining that “bulk rail transport is a safe alternative for this energy product.”

To make the tank cars even safer, the Department of Transportation has also authorized outfitting the outer tank with thicker, more puncture-resistant steel.

But layers of steel can only help so much when a cars is hurtling along at the 50 mph. “It would only take 22 rail tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb,” said Jordan Luebkemann, an attorney at Earthjustice representing the Clean Air Council, Sierra Club and others behind Tuesday’s petition to the D.C. Circuit.

“It’s unbelievably reckless to discard the critical, long-standing safety measures we have in place to protect the public from this dangerous cargo,” Luebkemann said in a statement. 

The Federal Railroad Administration conducted shell-impact testing in November 2019 to DOT-113 tank cars, which would be the kind carrying liquefied natural gas. Striking a small ram against the side of a DOT-113 shell at only 16.7 mph, scientists observed the device had slowed to 8.4 mph when it punctured the tank’s first outer layer. 

Luebkemann noted in an email Tuesday that the government’s extra safety precautions only make the shells of the rail cars carrying liquefied natural gas an eighth of an inch thicker.

Since those shells haven’t undergone impact testing yet, however, Luebkemann called it uncertain how much safer they will be.

“PHMSA’s newly minted specification does not yet exist,” Luebkemann said. “That is, PHMSA is requiring a thicker outer shell in the rule, but it has never been constructed, nor studied for LNG transport and crashworthiness.”

Luebkemann cut through the defense he expects the government to make: that liquefied natural gasses is completely safe, nontoxic and nonflammable.

That is certainly true of the liquids, the lawyer said, but not gasses that constantly boil off of those products. Another defense expected to be raised is the essentiality of liquefied natural gasses for U.S. energy independence.

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