Safer oil trains: Legislature on collision course with itself

The Republican-dominated Senate and the Democratic House agree there is a need for action. But they differ on strategies.
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Oil trains move through new rail trackage at Everett. The four tracks were built last summer.

The Republican-dominated Senate and the Democratic House agree there is a need for action. But they differ on strategies.

Washington Senate and House bills are on a collision course on how to prevent and deal with accidents involving trains carrying oil.

And both houses of the Legislature will likely give floor votes to the measures originating with their own majority party members.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is pushing a bill that would have the Washington Department of Ecology — along with other federal, state and industry departments — conduct studies on a wide range of oil disaster scenarios on land and water. Reports on the studies would be due on Dec. 31. Ericksen's bill also calls for $10 million in Model Toxics Control Act money to be set aside to provide grants to local emergency departments seeking help to set up responses to oil disasters. The Ecology Department would be required to have 50 percent of the contingency plans in place by Dec. 1, 2016.

Ericksen is chair of the Senate Energy & Environment Committee, which held a hearing on his bill Tuesday.

In the House, Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, has sponsored a bill that would require the state Office of Financial Management to prepare a report by Oct. 15 on the state's capacity to respond to oil train accidents. It also addresses tanker ship requirements and oil spill fines in Washington's waters. And it would require the Ecology Department to complete and make public quarterly oil transportation reports. Her bill has no appropriations component.

The 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 in part because of the presence of five oil refineries. "There's a lot of exploding trains around the nation," said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for the Washington Conservation Voters.

The House Environment Committee passed Farrell's bill 8-to-5 along party lines Tuesday

In the Senate, most people testifying at a hearing on Ericksen's bill praised his intentions. Several people contended that it would not do enough or move fast enough. But the state Ecology Department expressed concern about the pace of action the bill would require. Dale Jensen, head of the department's oil spill responses, said, "The time frames are pretty tight," Jensen said. 

Several environmental organizations testified that direct action needs to be phased in more quickly than outlined by Ericksen's bill. Committee member Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said, "I hear a lot from the public about these concerns and the need for action." Mary Moore of the Washington League of Women Voters added, "It seems to us that it puts off decisions that need to be made immediately."

Ericksen said his bill includes $10 million allocated from Model Toxics Control Act funds that would speed up action. Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, disagreed, saying the money isn't actually available in that fund. The Senate committee's staff promised to research the matter.

Another disagreement occurred over how much oil companies and railroads should tell local emergency departments and the public about the volumes, types, times and destinations for shipments of oil and other hazardous materials hauled by trains.

Bill Stauffacher, representing the BNSF railroad, and Ericksen cited concerns about terrorists becoming able to target trains with known routes, times and hazardous loads. Some officials with local governments countered that they need that information so their emergency departments can obtain the right equipment and training to respond to such disasters, and know what volumes and types of hazardous materials they are rushing in to deal with. "I do want transparency about what's in those tank cars," said Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon.

Moore said: "The League [of Women Voters] believes the public should know what's going through their town."

Also Tuesday, the Senate Energy Committee unanimously approved legislation that would ask Congress to toughen the safety standards on railroad tank cars.

The committee is likely to give approval to Ericksen's emergency response bill, paving the way for a vote by the full Senate. Farrell's bill likely headed to a House vote.

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 and on Twitter at @johnstang_8