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Lawmakers to question oil-by-rail safety; tank cars a concern

U.S. Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) attends a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, in this July 27, 201
U.S. Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) attends a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, in this July 27, 201

By Patrick Rucker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are expected to question regulators and rail industry officials on Wednesday about several recent fiery derailments, focusing on whether shipments from energy producing regions such as North Dakota's Bakken area are being handled safely.

A subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Transportation Committee will hear from the officials with the rail and oil sectors as well as U.S. Department of Transportation officials who are responsible for safe shipments.

"We need to understand what government agencies and transportation stakeholders are doing to ensure safety on the system," said Rep. Jeff Denham, a California Republican who will convene the panel.

One area of concern has been how fuel is handled as it moves from fields to refiners and whether hazardous material rules account for pressure that can build during such deliveries.

Existing hazardous material rules envision a test for the initial boiling point of crude oil and the liquid's flash point, or the temperature at which it will combust with a spark.

But the rules do not expect a test for pressure and some lawmakers and Congressional staff say that is a blind spot in the regulations that should be addressed.

"The pressure and volatility of these shipments have not been getting enough attention," said Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district in Washington state is home to a Tesoro Corp refinery that routinely receives shipments of oil from the Bakken region on railcars.

In March, a Tesoro executive reported that its refinery in Anacortes, Washington, was seeing pressures climb on its Bakken rail shipments. (for full report see: http://r.reuters.com/mun27v)

Officials did not test vapor pressure on crude oil samples that led to fines against Hess Corp, Marathon Oil Corp and Whiting Petroleum Corp early this month.

The companies were later cited for wrongly classifying cargo tanks hauling fuel from the field to a railhead in October, and a DOT official said tank car pressure was now being scrutinized more closely.

"This market is evolving fast, and people are demanding that we get clear answers on the dangers," said Larsen, who has heard from communities along the oil-by-rail route in his district.

The hearing is scheduled to start at 2pm EST (1900 GMT). Among those scheduled to speak are Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration and Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, both arms of the Department of Transportation.

Also on the bill are Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, and Edward Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.

(Reporting by Patrick Rucker; Editing by Ken Wills)

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