Inslee sounds alarm about oil trains

He is asking for federal help, but state officials are exploring what they can do on their own.
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Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay.

He is asking for federal help, but state officials are exploring what they can do on their own.

Gov. Jay Inslee wants the feds to slow down oil trains and to speed up the shifting of oil cars to a safer design.

And Inslee plans to use a draft state report — unveiled Wednesday — to design legislation to improve oil train safety in Washington.

"There has been an unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013," the state's report said. "The amount may reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end 2014 or during 2015. This amount may increase beyond this with the full build-out of proposed crude by rail facilities and the potential lifting of the federal crude oil export ban."

Inslee said: "Oil trains are running through Washington every day that are outdated, inadequate and outright dangerous. This is unacceptable to me, and I'm sure to every Washingtonian."

Currently, oil trains use a combination of older DOT-111 tank cars and newer, safer CP-232 oil cars. In a Sept. 26 letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Inslee requested the federal government make railroads and oil companies speed up the shift to the newer cars, now planned in two years. Most railroad companies and the American Petroleum Institute say the government is moving too fast.

Inslee also requested that any train with DOT-111 cars be limited to a speed of 30 mph. Currently, such trains can travel up to either 40 mph or 50 mph, depending on various factors. BNSF Railroad voluntary holds oil trains to 45 mph.

"We ought to put the pedal to the metal to provide people safety," Inslee said.

The feds have sole control of train speeds in most situations. But Washington state can control train speeds at its public crossings. And the Washington Transportation Commission is researching how it can tackle train speeds at the crossings, said commission chairman Dave Danner.

In 2013 and 2014, the United States had four oil train accidents that produced fires — one in North Dakota, one in West Virginia and two in New England. Closer to home, three 29,200-gallon oil cars on a slow-moving train derailed without any spills or fire beneath Seattle's Magnolia Bridge in July. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

Trains range from one oil car among numerous freight cars to ones with 100 oil cars or so. Consequently, a huge oil-car train could carry up to 29 million gallons of oil.

Inslee is also using the draft report to begin hammering out oil train legislation to introduce in the 2015 session. The details have not been laid out yet. The report does call for at least $10.5 million in emergency training and equipment, plus the hiring of the equivalent of some 30 people to tackle various prevention and response programs. An updated report is due by Dec.1.

In the Legislature's 2014 session, Democrats and Republicans introduced somewhat similar oil train emergency prevention and response bills, including requirements that oil companies and railroads provide advance information on each oil train to emergency agencies. But the two sides could not get past one major deadlock. The Democrats wanted to make the volumes and chemical compositions of the oil in each upcoming train available to the public. The Republicans were against that plan, arguing it would expose proprietary corporate secrets.

All crude oil is not the same. One of the fundamental differences is that crude oil from Alberta and the surrounding area tends to break down and sinks into water. Meanwhile, crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken fields tends to be dissolved and evaporate in a spill. The Bakken oil, much of which comes into Washington state, is also widely considered to be more volatile. In the wake of Wall Street Journal reports about the volatility of the Bakken oil, North Dakota is considering new safety rules but the oil industry is resisting.

The draft report by experts hired by the state mapped out the oil transportation situation in Washington and the United States. Nationally, the number of rail cars transporting crude oil grew from 9,500 in 2008 to 415,000 carloads in 2013. A typical tanker car holds 29,200 gallons. Washington's five refineries process roughly 24.3 million gallons of crude oil a day, and have the capacity of processing 26.5 million gallons daily. 

In 2003, 91 percent of the oil going to Washington's refineries came by ship, with 9 percent arriving by pipeline. In 2013, 67.4 percent arrived in Washington by ship, 24.2 percent by pipeline and 8.4 percent by railroad.


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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