June 3, 2014 / 9:28 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. lawmakers fault regulators for lax oil train controls

WASHINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators reacted timidly to a spate of oil train mishaps and have been too reluctant to manage dangerous cargo on the tracks, several lawmakers said on Tuesday, faulting officials for lax oversight of a fast-growing industry.

Officials have been under pressure to improve safety since an oil train shipment derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in July killing 47 people. Several other doomed oil trains originated from the same energy patch in North Dakota's Bakken region, including a shipment that jumped the tracks and burst into flames in Lynchburg, Virginia, on April 30.

But officials are moving too slowly to catch violators and improve safety, several senators said.

"This needs to be a higher priority," said Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota after a meeting of the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss rail safety concerns.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) sent the White House a plan to improve oil train safety in April, but that review could last many months.

"They need to put this on the front burner and move faster than they ever thought possible," said Klobuchar, a Democrat whose home state is a pass-through point for a large share of Bakken fuel.

Oil production in North Dakota is hovering around 1 million barrels per day with about 70 percent of that fuel reaching coastal refineries on the tracks.

The Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) warned in January that Bakken fuel could be more volatile than other crude oil, but the agency has been slow to detail its concerns.

PHMSA has sampled Bakken fuel since last summer and promised to have preliminary findings by this point in the year.

"We will be ready within a few days maybe a week or so to publish," Magdy El-Sibaie, an associate administrator at PHMSA, told the National Transportation Safety Board on April 23.

Two industry-funded studies released recently conclude Bakken fuel is moving safely on the tracks. A PHMSA official said the agency is weighing those reports and does not yet have its own findings.

"It is incumbent upon PHMSA To step up to the plate and release its study so we have all the facts," said Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. "Only then can we come to a true consensus on the qualities of Bakken crude."

Three oil companies have been fined for wrongly handling Bakken fuel this year, but the $93,000 in penalties against Hess Corp, Marathon Oil Corp and Whiting Petroleum Corp have already been modified and could be reduced further.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who chaired Tuesday's panel, equated those fines to parking tickets for a delivery service.

"It's just a cost of doing business," said the Connecticut Democrat. "Until it is something more, these penalties won't be an effective tool." (Reporting By Patrick Rucker. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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