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Oil on the tracks: Seattle joins Spokane in looking at safety issues

If the number of oil trains crossing the state increases, what's in store for the environment and public safety?
Empty coal cars flank Bakken Oil tankers at the Port of Everett.

Empty coal cars flank Bakken Oil tankers at the Port of Everett. Credit: Paul K. Anderson

Oil train explosions in Canada and the U.S. and a massive increase in oil shipments by rail in Washington are magnifying the risky business of moving oil through population centers. Three oil trains a day are estimated to cross the state carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken Oil fields bound to refineries in Tacoma, Cherry Point and Grays Harbor. The number and volume is expected to increase eight-fold if 10 proposed oil terminals become operational.  

One city council president, Spokane’s Ben Stuckart, calls them “moving time bombs." But the risk oil trains pose to public safety and the environmental repercussions are drawing the attention of city councils, legislators and environmentalists. The resolution passed by the Spokane City Council urges the adoption of new state and federal regulations as well as an update to emergency response plans. 

“I think the dangers of this Bakken crude are even more so than the dangers we have with coal trains. They’re carrying highly explosive materials and our citizens aren’t safeguarded,” said Stuckart.   

The Seattle City Council will hold a hearing on the issue this Friday. According to Stuckart, cities can’t regulate interstate commerce, but states can demand safety standards, and federal agencies can mandate tougher railway standards.

“If Seattle and Spokane, the two largest cities in the state, really, within a couple of weeks of each other, pass these resolutions and get them unanimously passed, it's going to send a statement to the feds and the state," says Stuckart. 

The public, elected officials and first responders have, for the most part, been kept in the dark by oil and rail companies about how much oil is being transported through the state, because companies aren’t required to disclose this information. When the oil proves to be as potentially lethal as Bakken crude, that’s a problem, say Sightline Institute policy analyst Eric de Place. For years, the National Transportation Safety Board has said that the principal tank car for transporting crude oil is unsafe.

“It’s not just a little bit safe," said de Place. "It’s wildly unsafe. The tank car, the DOT-111, has been implicated in a number of high profile disasters."  

He refers to oil train explosions in North Dakota, Alberta, Alabama and, in particualr, Quebec, where a catastrophic crash and explosion devastated the town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. DOT-111 tank cars make up anywhere between 70 and 90 percent of rail cars carrying crude oil. The National Transportation Safety Board issued new recommendations in January, but it doesn’t have regulatory authority to enforce them, according to de Place.

“That’s up to another agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration or PIMSA. And that government agency has been very reluctant to require upgrades or retrofits to the existing stock of tank cars,” says de Place. 

Tesoro Refinery with a terminal in Anacortes recently told investors that by mid-year, its entire tank car fleet would be made up of new cars with protective plates at both ends and thicker shells. Canada National, the biggest rail company in North America, also announced it had begun to charge shippers who use the old cars more than those who use new ones. Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada’s second largest rail company, is following suit with a surcharge on oil companies who use hazardous rail cars.

House Bill 2347, or the Oil Transportation and Safety Act, was voted on the floor this week and was sent to the Senate. The House bill asks for more information from oil and rail companies about the amount of oil being transported and calls for studies on local and state disaster preparedness plans. Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, is co-sponsor of the bill.

“I think there’s a widespread recognition on both sides of the aisle that we need to a) know what’s happening and b) to make sure we have the assets and plans in place to keep our communities safe,” says Farrell.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Feb 21, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Remember that the horrific Quebec accident involved a train that had only one crew member. And yet it looks like HB 2718 in our legislature - with 26 sponsors! - is dead. How is that? A law that would require short line railroads (i.e., intrastate) to have at least two crew members on board.

The City of Tacoma owns a short line railroad (which hauls propane among other things) and its policy is that each train has at least two crew members - and yet Tacoma's lobbyist opposed HB 2718. Just how serious is the legislature about improving train safety?

Saratoga

Posted Fri, Feb 21, 3:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for the article. However, correction needed: Ben Stuckart http://www.spokanecity.org/government/citycouncil/stuckart/

rYz11

Posted Sat, Feb 22, 1:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The local safety risks of these oil trains is huge as demonstrated by the multiple accidents in the past few months.

For Washington State to allow these trains to travel within the state regardless of steps taken to mitigate accidents (I seriously doubt that is possible) is irresponsible.

That said, the bottom line for me is the effect on climate change from the burning of these fossil fuels no matter how they reach market. There can be no mitigation of the disastrous effects of climate change and ocean acidification on the lives of humans and all other living beings on this planet of runaway global warming. Not to do all that we can to stop this from happening is irresponsible to the n-th degree.

nwcitizen

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