Federal Court Orders DOT to Respond to Sierra Club’s Unsafe Tank Car Lawsuit

A Federal Court has ordered the Department of Transportation (DOT) to respond to a lawsuit filed by three environmental organizations—Earthjustice, Sierra Club and ForestEthics—in which the parties asked the court to order DOT to respond to the organizations’ request for an emergency order banning the use of DOT-111 tanks cars for the shipment of crude oil by rail.

DOT has 60 days to provide the Court with a response to Sierra Club’s lawsuit, which alleges that DOT is in violation of the law for failing to respond to its Unsafe Tank Car Petition.  The petition, filed with DOT on July 15, 2014, argues that the continued transport of crude oil in older model rail cars poses risks to public safety.  The petitioners assert that DOT should restrict the shipment of volatile crude oil in unsafe DOT-111 tank cars, and that DOT’s failure to do so previously is inexcusable given the long string of findings by the National Transportation Safety Board that the legacy DOT-111 tank cars are extremely vulnerable to puncture, spilling oil, and precipitating explosions and fires in train accidents.

Shortly after the Unsafe Tank Car Petition was filed, on July 23, 2014, DOT and the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) issued a much anticipated proposed rulemaking on Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains (for a breakdown of the rulemaking, click here).  The Sierra Club issued a statement responding to the rulemaking, arguing that the proposed rules do not adequately address the immediate and growing threat posed by crude-by-rail accidents.

DOT and PHMSA have not issued any specific reply to the Unsafe Tank Car Petition and it is this lack of response that Sierra Club sought review of in the federal court.  Specifically, the environmental organizations argued that the Government’s failure to respond puts it in violation of the law that requires federal agencies to respond to matters before it within a reasonable time.

The Federal Court denied a motion filed by the Sierra Club to expedite the petition, which was opposed by DOT.  However, the Court ordered DOT to file a response to Sierra Club within 60 days.  DOT’s response is due on November 21, 2014 and Sierra Club will have fourteen days to respond in turn.  The InfraInsight Blog will provide a summary of DOT’s response when it is submitted.

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