State report recommends better preparedness for oil-train accidents

More people, equipment and a permanent funding source are needed to cope with risks from increased transportation of oil by train across Washington, a study suggests.
Crosscut archive image.

Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay.

More people, equipment and a permanent funding source are needed to cope with risks from increased transportation of oil by train across Washington, a study suggests.

A draft report calls for the Legislature to provide more people and money to deal with Washington's increasing oil train traffic

A revised 497-page Washington Department of Ecology draft report went to Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday. A final report is due in March. Monday's report echoes an earlier Oct. 1 report, but adds much greater detail.

The report recommends that a permanent funding source be created for an oil spill prevention and response program with planners, inspectors, training and equipment — and how they would be set up across the state. It recommends that state Utilities and Transportation Commission inspectors be allowed on private property to scope out hazardous materials and procedures. The report  addresses railroad-crossing inspections.

It also calls for continuous studies and upgrades to deal with oil spills hazards. Oil-spill plans and drills would be regulated by the state.

Monday's report says 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 amount may reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end 2014 or during 2015. Even that amount could increase with construction of proposed new rail facilities and the potential lifting of a federal ban on exporting U.S. crude oil.

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 very large oil-car train could carry up to 29 million gallons of oil.

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 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 failed to 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.

Monday's draft version did not call for the chemical compositions and volumes of the transported oil to be made available to the public, but it recommended that information be available to emergency responders.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


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