Feds push proper testing of crude oil for shipment

MINOT, N.D. – Federal officials emphasized the importance of testing crude oil Wednesday during a workshop here, while investigators from the same agency continue inspections to determine if Bakken crude oil is being properly classified.

The Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is conducting outreach in North Dakota this week, including holding the daylong workshop Wednesday and participating in the State Fire School today.

The events come on the heels of a new emergency order that said crude oil shipments must be designated as Packing Group I or II, requiring the oil to be shipped in more robust rail cars. Packing Group III, the lowest risk designation, will not be accepted until further notice.

The order from PHMSA, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, also mandates that crude oil be properly classified before it is shipped, following up on a safety alert the agency previously issued.

In interviews after Wednesday’s workshop, the PHMSA representatives said there are few differences between Packing Groups I and II. Both classes require the same type of tank car for rail transportation and both require security plans.

Packing Group I, which designates great danger, has the lowest boiling point, which could affect how emergency responders react to an accident, said Jeannie Shiffer, director of governmental, international and public affairs.

About 15 people attended the workshop, including representatives from rail facilities and others involved with transportation of hazardous materials. The agency will hold similar events in Dickinson on March 26 and Williston on April 23, as well as other workshops around the country.

Shirley McNew, a central region representative from the agency’s Hazardous Materials Safety Assistance Team, said properly classifying crude oil ensures that the hazards are packaged correctly and communicated to first-responders.

For example, some Bakken crude oil is testing as more corrosive or containing dissolved flammable gases or hydrogen sulfide, McNew said.

“It’s just so different, it poses some unique risks that we haven’t seen before,” McNew said of Bakken crude.

Properly classifying the oil will ensure that the hazards are communicated through placards or on shipping papers, she said.

“The whole intent of it is the safe transportation of that petroleum crude. So if something does happen, the emergency responders know what they’re dealing with,” McNew said.

The emergency order mandates proper testing with “sufficient frequency and quality” but does not specify how often to test. That was one question that came up during the workshop but was not answered.

Shiffer said it’s the shipper’s responsibility to conduct the tests and know the characteristics of the oil being transported.

“That’s one of the things we’re trying to get across while we’re here, is you cannot make assumptions about crude. It is organic, you’re pulling it right from the ground. There are a lot of possibilities, that’s why it’s so important that you test it, characterize it, so that you classify it and make sure it’s in the proper tank car,” Shiffer said.

Three companies operating in the Bakken are facing potential fines from PHMSA resulting from the agency’s Operation Classification, also known as the Bakken Blitz. The operation, which includes unannounced spot inspections, is ongoing and investigators are taking more samples this week, Shiffer said.

Most of the probable violations are for shipments that investigators say were classified under the wrong packing group.

Workshop participants received a folder of information on the regulations, including a booklet to help them use a larger book on hazardous materials regulations. McNew said because the information can be technical, the agency is holding workshops around the country and invites emergency responders and other groups to request training. To make a request, contact the agency’s outreach division at (202) 366-4900, or check for future events at www.phmsa.dot.gov. A hazardous materials hotline is also available during business hours at (800) 467-4922 or infocntr@dot.gov.

Gary Anglesey, director of operations for the Savage rail terminal in Trenton, said he attended the training to understand more about the emergency order the agency issued this week. The order covered procedures the facility had already been doing, Anglesey said. The key will be to get information about the regulations out, he said.

“I think we’ve just got to make sure we’re vigilant in what safety policies are in place,” Anglesey said.

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