Rail tank-car owners to replace defective valves never approved for installation on thousands of tank cars, causing oil to spill from moving trains, the U.S. government has ordered

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration on Friday ordered rail tank-car owners to replace defective valves never approved for installation on thousands of tank cars, causing oil to spill from moving trains.

The directive applies to a 3-inch valve installed on roughly 6,000 tank cars, and their owners have 60 days to replace them. Within 90 days, tank car owners must also replace 37,000 1-inch and 2-inch valves manufactured by the same company. While the smaller valves were not found to be defective like the larger ones, they were not approved for the tank cars.

The affected cars can be used in the interim, but none can be loaded with hazardous materials if they are still equipped with those valves after the deadlines.

The enforcement action comes after a story last month in McClatchy’s Bellingham Herald about 14 tank cars that were discovered leaking en route from North Dakota’s Bakken region to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.

Friday’s enforcement action is the second to follow an investigation launched after McClatchy reported on leaking cars in Washington.

On Thursday, the agency said it had sanctioned the operator of a North Dakota loading facility for not properly closing a valve on another oil car after McClatchy reported in January that the car arrived at the BP Cherry Point refinery near Blaine with 1,600 gallons missing.

That spill was discovered in early November but wasn’t reported to state officials until early December. Local emergency officials were never notified, according to a report sent by BNSF Railway to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

The 1-inch, 2-inch and 3-inch valves were all manufactured and sold by McKenzie Valve and Machining, a company in Tennessee. The Bellingham Herald could not immediately reach anyone at McKenzie.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) also announced Friday that it was launching a full audit of the approval process for tank-car components to determine why the unapproved valves were installed.

Under federal regulations, tank-car valve designs must be approved by the Association of American Railroads Tank Car Committee.

Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting chief, said Friday that removal of the valves will help reduce the number of nonderailment releases of hazardous materials.

“Any type of hazardous materials release, no matter how small, is completely unacceptable,” she said in a statement.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the railroad association, said Friday that it supported the order. Railroads don’t own most of the tank cars used to transport oil.

“Officials from our association will be working closely with the administration in reviewing the tank-car valve-approval process to ensure the agency is fully satisfied with the current approval requirements that are in place,” he said in a statement.

The Federal Railroad Administration’s order came about a month after crews discovered tank cars leaking oil from their top fittings on a handful of trains hauling different types of crude oil through Washington state.

In mid-January, a train loaded with Bakken crude needed to have more than a dozen leaking cars removed at three separate stops as it traveled through Idaho and crossed Washington.

The train was headed from Tioga, N.D., to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes.

In a report to the U.S. Department of Transportation, BNSF Railway reported a total of 26 gallons of oil leaking from 14 cars. Tesoro reported two more leaking cars. The oil was found only on the tops and sides of tank cars, and no oil was found on the ground.

Crews had first noticed oil on the side of a tank car while the train was in northern Idaho, and after checking the rest of the train, removed that car, which had leaked about two gallons, according to BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.

After the train had crossed through the state, following the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash., crews found that crude oil had leaked onto the top of seven more cars, which were removed from the train on Jan. 12. BNSF reported the incident to the state Department of Ecology on Jan. 23.

BNSF also reported that about 10 gallons total had leaked from six more cars removed in Auburn on Jan. 13.

Wallace said the railroad would work with customers and shippers to take the required actions.

“Although BNSF does not own the tank cars, nothing is more important to us than safely operating through the communities that we serve,” she said.