Friday, January 31, 2014

Federal fines for rail disasters are often small

Concern keeps growing about the safety of carrying crude oil by rail. After more oil was spilled in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended tougher standards for oil tank cars, and the Association of American Railroads urged manufacturers to replace older cars that carry flammable materials. But federal documents show that the Department of Transportation levis relatively small civil penalties against the railroads it regulates, Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. (McClatchy graphic)

"A McClatchy review of annual enforcement reports shows that the Federal Railroad Administration rarely fines any company more than $25,000, though it’s authorized to collect a maximum of $175,000 per violation," Tate writes. "Some fines are as little as $250, and most settlements are substantially lower than the agency had first proposed." The FRA collected $13.9 million in civil penalties last year.

History shows that penalties are riddled with inconsistencies, Tate writes. For example, in a 2010  derailment in Illinois that spilled more than 300,000 gallons of ethanol, forced the evacuation of 600 residents and killed one person, the agency agreed to a $17,000 settlement, because "two inspection reports filed in the weeks after the accident also show that the violations that resulted in the fine didn’t directly contribute to the accident or its severity, including faulty equipment on cars that didn’t derail or spill their cargo and incorrect documentation of the placement of cars in the train," Tate reports. "Such defects would have been violations even if the accident hadn’t occurred. The agency originally proposed a $25,000 fine." But in a 2011 incident when a woman died in her car at a railroad crossing, the agency got a $36 million settlement from Canadian National Railway.

FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson told Tate the agency, “uses a variety of tools to ensure that railroads are operating safely, including civil penalties, enforcement actions and partnerships to drive change within safety culture. These tools are an integral force in driving continuous safety improvement, resulting in significant declines in all measureable safety indicators.” (Read more)

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