Oil train safety: Political wreck ahead?

Republicans and Democrats appear to be at odds over how to protect people and the environment from increased oil shipments.
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Oil trains move through Everett.

Republicans and Democrats appear to be at odds over how to protect people and the environment from increased oil shipments.

Two different approaches to ensuring safety in the transportation of oil avoided any immediate collision Tuesday, but a head-on confrontation could still be ahead.

The almost-certain prospect of a political clash became less clear when a Washington Senate Majority Coalition Caucus oil transportation safety bill apparently died Tuesday, apparently at the caucus' own hands.

The majority coalition did not put its own oil transportation safety bill to a floor vote Tuesday, which was the deadline for policy bills to leave the chamber of a bill's sponsor. That leaves House Democrats' oil transportation safety bill — passed at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday — as the only one of the two conflicting bills in play.

The House bill passed 57-37, mostly along partisan lines. However, Republicans have been cold toward the House Democrats' bill, which means that, even with the Majority Coalition bill out of the way, the House proposal could run into a wall in the Senate controlled by the 24-Republican-two-Democrat alliance.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler declined to discuss the Senate bill's fate late Tuesday afternoon. The bill's sponsor Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, could not be reached for comment after Tuesday's session, although he attended a noon press session on that bill. At noon, Ericksen appeared confident that the bill would on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D- Maury Island, said Ericksen's bill is dead because Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline had passed.

The biggest difference between the House and Senate bill is that the House bill by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, would give the Washington Department of Ecology much more leeway to make regulations on its own pertaining to the oil trains. That's something the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus believes is too broad of a power for a state agency, Ericksen said at noon Tuesday.

Both bills call for studies to be done on the state's capacity to deal with oil train and oil ship accidents, including having advance knowledge of what is coming into Washington and having properly equipped and trained people ready to respond to accidents. The House bill sets a December 2014 deadline to complete the studies, while the Senate bill calls for an initial report by December 2014 and a final report by December 2015.

However, the House bill requires the state to study adding extra tugboats in the state's waters, including the Columbia River — if an oil-shipping terminal is approved for that specific area. And the House bill wants more oil company and railroad transportation information made public, while the Senate version calls for more confidentiality of proprietary of information related to oil. During the midday press session, Ericksen, who chairs the Senate Energy & Environment Committee, and Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick and a member of the committee, could not say what exactly should be kept confidential on the oil train shipments, and why that information should be kept confidential.

The Senate and House bills are prompted by the increased transportation of crude oil and an accompanying rise in accidents, including a deadly one in Quebec and an explosion in North Dakota. Washington has become a destination for oil trains in part because of the presence of five oil refineries. Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D- Seattle, sponsored the House bill, arguing that more oil spilled from trains in 2013 alone than over the entire previous four decades. "In Washington state," she said, "we know there will be more oil transportation across our state, our towns and our waterways."

During the late-night House debate, Rep. Shelly Short, R- Addy, and Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, unsuccessfully pushed for more confidentiality on proprietary information in Farrell's bill.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, argued against extra tugboat escorts for oil tankers on the Columbia River, saying the river is too narrow for additional tugs to accompany the ships. "My Columbia River is not Puget Sound," he said, "and to treat it like Puget Sound is wrong. ... When tug operators operate 30 years without any problems, there's no problem."

Meanwhile, the Senate passed 47-0 Tuesday a request to Congress to ensure greater safety on rail tank cars. "Tanks carrying potentially hazardous liquids and gases by rail should meet the highest safety standards and utilize the best technology to minimize the impact of accidents," according to the legislation by Sen. Steve O'Ban R-Pierce County. The legislation — dubbed a "memorial" — requests that Congress install stricter standards on new railroad tank cars. The measure also asks Congress to require roughly 92,000 existing cars to be upgraded or phased out. The memorial, which has no legal power to force any action by Congress, now goes to the state House.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8