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Trump Administration's New Natural Gas Transportation Rule Sparks Safety Concerns


Trains hauling tank cars filled with liquefied natural gas are now allowed on rail systems across this country. The Trump administration adopted the rule over the objections of many who worry about catastrophic fires and explosions if LNG trains derail. Fourteen states and a coalition of environmental groups are fighting to block it. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Up to now, there's only been a couple places in the country where trains have been allowed to carry liquefied natural gas.


ALLEN: One of them is in the heart of Miami. Trains like this one have been hauling 10,000-gallon tanks of LNG on flatbed cars from a plant to ports here and in Fort Lauderdale. The rail line passes close by schools, churches and residential neighborhoods. But Cecile Scofield says few know what the trains are carrying.

CECILE SCOFIELD: People are not aware. I've spoken with so many people, and they're like, what are you talking about? LNG - what's LNG?

ALLEN: Scofield is an activist who lives in Palm Bay not far from the Florida East Coast Railway tracks where trains have been allowed to haul it. She worries about the dangers of a derailment.

SCOFIELD: The best thing you can do with an LNG fire or a leak or breach is to run and get out of there.

ALLEN: Exactly what happens when rail cars carrying LNG rupture isn't known because the Department of Transportation hasn't studied it. Despite that uncertainty, under a rule adopted this summer, the Trump administration is now allowing LNG to be hauled nationwide in large 30,000-gallon tankers in trains with 100 cars or more. Environmental groups warn of the possibility of a major explosion similar to a 2013 disaster in Quebec.


ROBERT SIEGEL: Crews are still searching for dozens of people reported missing after a train carrying oil derailed and erupted into a fiery ball on Saturday.

ALLEN: A train with 74 railcars filled with crude oil derailed, destroying a town and killing more than 40 people. Fred Millar, a rail safety expert, says another scenario, which he considers more likely, is that a large cloud of natural gas would be released, a cloud that can travel some distance into a community before it's ignited. Millar says the Department of Transportation recognized that possibility in its rule but didn't calculate how many people could be at risk.

FRED MILLAR: They were just rushing it through. They didn't want anybody saying, oh, my God, how probable is this accident?

ALLEN: Federal guidelines recommend evacuating everyone within a one-mile radius of an accident involving liquefied natural gas. Millar says that's not realistic in major cities.

MILLAR: Nobody could credibly say that if this accident happened in the middle of Miami, that you could evacuate a mile radius in Miami or Fort Lauderdale or any community that has any density at all. Who's going to do the evacuation?

ALLEN: Rail companies who lobbied for this new business downplay the potential for any accidents involving LNG. Ian Jefferies is the CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

IAN JEFFERIES: The track record speaks for itself - 99.99% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without any incident whatsoever.

ALLEN: The new rule requires a more robust tank car than what's currently in use, one with a thicker steel shell the industry says will be less likely to rupture in a collision or derailment. There's no limit on the length of the trains or on the routes they can use to take LNG to ports on the east and west coasts. But Jefferies says the industry always takes safety into account.

JEFFERIES: The routing analysis that occurs for these and other types of hazmat shipments is a risk-based routing analysis to ensure that railroads are using the lowest risk routes.

ALLEN: LNG is mostly being exported to countries in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. Producing it at inland facilities and shipping it by rail is actually more expensive than producing it near ports, where it can be loaded directly onto oceangoing tankers. That's why activists say if safety concerns aren't enough to stop LNG trains, eventually, they hope, the economics will. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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