Blog   |   Jun 1st, 2016 PHMSA Workshop Continues Discussion on Oil Spill Response Planning for Railroads

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The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) continues to consider new regulations with more rigorous oil spill response planning requirements for railroads, and recently held a workshop to facilitate further discussions on the issue.

The workshop highlighted the following implications for railroads as a result of the proposed regulations:

  • PHMSA expects to publish the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding railroad oil spill response plan requirements in June 2016. The proposed regulations will likely revise the criteria regarding which trains need to develop and implement a “comprehensive response plan” in accordance with 49 CFR 130.31(b), and are expected to implement more stringent requirements for a comprehensive response plans.
  • New Preparedness for Response Exercise Program (PREP) Guidelines that will be effective as of June 10, 2016 specifically notes that DOT/PHMSA exercises will apply to pipelines as well as other modes of transportation regulated under 49 CFR 130, including railroads and, possibly, trucking. Previously, the PREP Guidelines only addressed pipelines.
  • Trains that will be affected by the NPRM are not defined at this time, but could potentially be defined as High Hazard Flammable Trains (HHFT), which are currently defined in 49 CFR 171.8 as a single train transporting 20 or more loaded tank cars of a Class 3 flammable liquid in a continuous block or a single train carrying 35 or more loaded tank cars of a Class 3 flammable liquid throughout the train consist; as any train with more than 1,000,000 gallons of Class 3 flammable liquid; as any train with more than 42,000 gallons of Class 3 flammable liquid; or as something else (many commentors on the Advanced NPRM published in August 2014 wanted PHMSA to regulate trains that transported more than 100,000 gallons of Class 3 flammable liquids in tank cars). 
  • PHMSA clarified a number of their requirements for pipeline response plans, which may also apply to railroad oil spill response plan requirements in the NPRM. 

Based on this information, TRC expects that any HHFT as currently defined will need to have a comprehensive oil spill response plan and that the requirements for a comprehensive oil spill response plan are expected to be more rigorous – i.e., more consistent with the current pipeline response plan requirements in 49 CFR 194. Additionally, PHMSA is expected to require railroads to develop and implement spill response drills and exercises in accordance with the PREP guidance. 

TRC will review the NPRM when it is published and prepare a summary of our assessment. 

In the meantime, uncertainty remains. Regulations will no doubt become more stringent and compliance will be more complex, time consuming, and costly. Additional time and money will be needed going forward to maintain the required plans, and to develop and maintain training and spill response readiness. However, preparing now will ensure regulatory and operational success when the new rules are finalized. Assessing current plans and spill response preparedness is a key first step, and independent experts can help identify areas for improvement or enhancement to reduce potential liabilities.

Blog Authors

Wade Narin van Court, Ph.D, PE

Wade Narin van Court, Ph.D, PE

Wade Narin van Court has more than 34 years of consulting experience for a variety of government and private sector clients and facilities, with expertise in oil/chemical release prevention and response; homeland security and emergency preparedness; regulatory compliance and permitting; and geotechnical, environmental, and civil engineering. Wade has assisted clients in the transportation, maritime, oil and gas, and industrial/commercial sectors with a wide range of consulting services for all phases of their operations. Wade has a Ph.D and M.S. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Washington. Contact Wade at

Sam Maxwell

Sam Maxwell

Sam Maxwell is a Staff Engineer in TRC's  Austin office, and has over 5 years of experience in the Environmental, Hydraulic, and Hydrologic Engineering fields. He frequently assists a range of public sector and private sector clients, including municipalities, state and federal agencies, petroleum refineries, oil pipeline companies, and other industries. His experience includes oil spill prevention and response (including SPCC Plans and Facility Response Plans), Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) permitting and compliance, hydraulic and hydrologic analysis, water resources engineering, and analytical data review and analysis. Sam received his B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact Sam at