Oil train information: Pleas to let public know what's going on

A small Spokane crowd speaks for openness about train traffic, something a Republican senator thinks is dangerous.
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Empty coal cars flank Bakken Oil tankers at the Port of Everett. Existing train traffic for both oil and coal could grow.

A small Spokane crowd speaks for openness about train traffic, something a Republican senator thinks is dangerous.

There was one big theme among those attending a Spokane hearing on oil train safety Tuesday: the public's ability to know what is happening. Six out of 10 people testifying at a legislative hearing there wanted daily Web site notices of when those trains go through their towns.

"I want Burlington Northern Santa Fe to let the public know when oil trains are coming through," said Laura Ackerman of Spokane.

Three additional people voiced other concerns about oil train wrecks spreading destruction. The 10th was a Tesoro oil company official saying the company has finished upgrading the safety of its oil cars.

The feedback came at a Washington Senate Energy & Environment Committee hearing on a bill introduced by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, near the end of the 2014 legislative session to study the safety of oil shipments by rail. The bill is intended for consideration in the 2015 session.  Baumgartner's bill calls for a massive study of oil trains and some oil-related harbor safety matters with the initial report to be submitted Dec. 31, 2015. And it calls for extensive emergency planning. It is somewhat similar to a bill by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chairman of the environment committee, which stalled in a deadlock last session with competing Democratic House and Senate oil transportation bills. 

Baumgartner's proposed study would be somewhat similar to a large study on the same topic called for by Gov. Jay Inslee last week. Inslee set an Oct. 1 deadline for a study report.

The 2014 bills were prompted by the increased rail 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. Four of those refineries are in Ericksen's 42nd Legislative District. The emergency studies and measures are supposed to be paid by extending a 5-cents-per-barrel tax called for by a bipartisan bill, which also stalled in the 2014 session.

Katie Evans of Spokane, representing the Sierra Club, testified that 1.5 million gallons of oil spilled from train accidents in 2013, more than the total from the previous 35 years. Patrick Brady, a BNSF official in charge of emergency planning and responses, said the last Spokane train accident involving hazardous materials took place in 1993. Brady said derailment prevention has improved. BNSF had 4.4 derailments per 1 million miles traveled by trains in 2004. That rate has dropped to 2.3 derailments per 1 million miles traveled by train in 2013.

BNSF has dramatically increased its shipments of oil. The railroad transported 141,000 railcars of oil in 2006, and 464,000 railcars of oil in 2013. Roughly 60 percent of the oil cars leaving North Dakota's Bakken fields are the newer and safer CPC-232 models. The other 40 percent are older DOT-111 models, which are being phased out.

Baumgartner's bill calls for railroads and oil companies to supply oil train information to the state. But the railroad and companies would be allowed to declare that information confidential and unavailable to the public. Baumgartner cited concerns about terrorists, plus an oil company's competitors using the oil train information for business-related advantages. 

The gap between Republican bills allowing confidentiality and Democratic bills calling for more transparency was a major reason for the deadlock on oil transportation safety in 2014.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane and a member of the Senate environment committee, contended that transparency on oil train information should be automatic, until a company proves a case for confidentiality. In February, he asked BNSF for the average number of oil trains going through Spokane daily. It took BNSF four months to reply, with the answer coming late last week, shortly before Tuesday's hearing. Spokane averages one-and-a-half oil trains a day.

Billig argued, "Transparency is a big help on how to make it safer."

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