USDOT/PHMSA Submits Paper for Upcoming UN Session on the Transport of Dangerous Goods

A unit crude oil train led by Norfolk Southern’s “Illinois Terminal” heritage unit rolls through Calumet City, Illinois in March of 2013. The passage of such trains through highly populated areas, and the accuracy with which their loads are characterized, continues to draw heavy scrutiny from regulatory agencies following the disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec in July of 2013. (photo copyright 2013 by Paul Burgess, all rights reserved)

A unit crude oil train led by Norfolk Southern’s “Illinois Terminal” heritage unit rolls through Calumet City, Illinois in March of 2013. The passage of such trains through highly populated areas, and the accuracy with which their loads are characterized, continues to draw heavy scrutiny from regulatory agencies following the disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec in July of 2013. (photo copyright 2013 by Paul Burgess, all rights reserved)

The United States Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) continues to respond to the disastrous train derailment in La Megantic, Quebec on July 6th, 2013. In that incident, an unmanned and unattended Montreal, Maine, & Atlantic (MM&A) freight train carrying crude oil derailed after a brake failure and subsequent uncontrolled descent down a grade outside the small Canadian town, suffering the explosion of several of its cars as well as the ignition of a catastrophic fire in the town center and killing an estimated forty-seven residents.

In what might be seen as the latest chapter of that response, PHMSA has submitted an exploratory paper to the 45th Session of the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods and on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, specifically addressed to the Sub-Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods. The session is to be held in Geneva, Switzerland from June 23rd to July 2nd, 2014. For those not familiar with this UN structure; the Committee and Sub-Committee noted above are basically working groups under UN aegis with expert-in-the-field representatives from many countries, who meet on a periodic basis to determine what actions or changes to UN “model” regulations under their jurisdiction might require additions, deletions, or modifications, depending on the submissions and expressed interests of the countries involved. Countries signify such interest through the submission of papers like the one PHMSA has just submitted. This is important because the “model” regulations noted above usually serve as the primary basis for actual national regulations on the same or similar subjects. This is intended to more-or-less create a globally similar structure of regulatory law that facilitates trade and ensures at least a basic level of interoperability, communication, and safety among participant nations in the global market.

The paper PHMSA has submitted is short and to the point. It provides a basic reason for its existence (i.e the massive increase in crude oil and gas production in North America and what they allege is a related increase in transport related accidents including, specifically, Lac Megantic), points out the fact that “raw” or unprocessed crude oils can have extremely variant flammability, volatility, and dissolved gas content characteristics depending on where and when it was pumped or drawn from, and raises questions as to the technical adequacy of current (hazard) classification standards and whether or not current hazard communication requirements are sufficient. The paper makes no specific proposals in these subject areas, instead urging a sustained discussion of the issues on the Sub-Committee level. It is worth noting that the focus of new regulations and enforcement by both PHMSA and its Canadian counterpart (Transport Canada/TDG) following Lac Megantic and to this point have been largely on these issues—the paper apparently is something of an effort to extend the discussion and related activities to regulatory bodies beyond North America. Depending on the willingness of the Committee to take up the issue (likely enough, in this author’s opinion) and the extent to which change to the model regulations may subsequently occur and then be embraced by national regulatory entities worldwide (also fairly likely), producers and transporters of crude oils worldwide may find that the tragedy in Canada has produced ramifications on a global, not merely continental, scale.

Here is a link to the paper:

http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/trans/doc/2013/dgac10c3/ST-SG-AC.10-C.3-2014-49e.doc

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