US rail panel to eye liability cost sharing for hazmat cargoes

03 August 2010 20:16  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--US rail regulators said on Tuesday they will set up a special advisory panel to help decide the extent to which chemical manufacturers should share the liability costs that railroads incur in carrying toxic cargoes such as chlorine.

The US Surface Transportation Board (STB) said that later this year it would convene a 27-member advisory panel made up of rail and chemical industry representatives along with tank car manufacturers and academics for a two-year study on cost-sharing for the risks involved in rail shipment of toxic inhalant hazardous (TIH) cargoes.

The board, an independent body within the US Department of Transportation (DOT), said that the special toxic cargoes study committee should help resolve “how the board should balance the common carrier obligation to transport this commodity [toxic chemicals] with the risk of catastrophic liability in setting appropriate rail transportation liability terms for TIH cargo”.

A solution to the question of liability sharing, said the board, “should revolve around the amount of economic responsibility for liability that railroads can reasonably ask TIH shippers to assume before the carrier will transport TIH cargo”.

US railroads would rather not carry toxic cargoes such as chlorine and ammonia because they face legal liability for damages when train accidents result in toxic chemical spills that cause damage, injuries or deaths.

But under US law, railroads have a “common carrier” obligation, meaning that they cannot refuse to carry a specific cargo merely because it would be inconvenient or unprofitable.

US chemical producers have long argued that railroad operators should be solely responsible for toxic spills because those accidents are the result of railroad equipment or operational failures.

In the most recent serious toxic cargo accident, a Norfolk Southern freight train that included chlorine tank cars crashed into freight cars on a rail siding at Graniteville, South Carolina, in January 2005. 

The high-speed crash ruptured one of the chlorine tank cars, resulting in a chlorine gas cloud that killed the moving train’s conductor and eight residents of the town.

A federal investigation found that the Norfolk Southern train crew that had moved idle freight cars to the siding at Graniteville had neglected to reset a track switch so that passing trains would stay on the main line.

Among other costs, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay a $4m (€3m) civil penalty to dispose of alleged federal environmental law violations related to the accident.

In announcing the advisory panel, STB chairman Daniel Elliott said that bringing shippers and railroad officials together on the committee “is more likely to result in better, more sustainable solutions” and an industry-wide consensus.

The board said it was inviting comment from rail operators, chemical producers and other stakeholders on how the advisory committee should be structured, the scope of its study and other issues.

Public comment and suggestions on the planned advisory panel are due at the Surface Transportation Board by 24 September, and nominations to the 27-member panel should be made to the board by 25 October.

STB said it expected the advisory panel would hold its first meeting before the end of the year.

Neither chemical industry officials nor railroad operators were immediately available on Tuesday to comment on the board’s proposal.

($1 = €0.76)

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By: Joe Kamalick
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