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Rail cars used to ship oil 'unacceptable public risk,' replacement cars may not be sufficient

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WASHINGTON - Rail tank cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday.

The cars, known as DOT-111s, were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing.

Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings destroyed in the blaze ignited by the Lac-Megantic accident. The Casselton accident, which occurred half a mile outside the town, created a massive fire that burned for more than 24 hours.

The NTSB has been urging replacing or retrofitting the tank cars since 1991, but the most recent federal effort to write tougher regulations for new cars didn't get underway until 2011. An initial public comment period closed in December, and regulators are currently at work writing proposed new standards, Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told the panel. She said she expected her agency to propose new tank car standards before the end of this year, but refused to be pinned down under questioning by lawmakers on when those rules might become final.

"Right now, there is so much uncertainty that people aren't going to make investments in safer cars and they're going to keep running these crummy cars and killing people," Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., complained.

Quarterman said she expected her staff to finish writing proposed rules "very soon."

All major regulations go to the White House before they are issued to ensure the safety benefits outweigh the cost to industry.

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