Oil train safety draws quick attention in Olympia

A Republican proposal has already gotten a hearing, and a Democratic one is ready to roll.
Crosscut archive image.

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

A Republican proposal has already gotten a hearing, and a Democratic one is ready to roll.

Two competing oil-train safety bills have come into quick play in the Washington Senate.

A Republican measure, proposed by Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, received a hearing on Thursday before the Senate Environment, Energy & Telecommunications Committee, which he chairs. Also on Thursday, Democratic Sens. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island and Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island introduced a bill to cover what Gov. Jay Inslee wants to do.

A preliminary Washington Department of Ecology study, released late last year, said that rapid increases in the amount of oil moving by rail in the state require new measures to protect the public and the environment.

Both bills increase per-barrel oil taxes to cover emergency response and planning expenses. Rolfes' bill would impose charges on both crude and refined oil, while Ericksen's addresses solely crude oil. Rolfes' bill requires advance notice to the state of crude and refined oil going by rail, pipe or ship. Ericksen's bill does not have those provisions.

Ericksen's bill pays considerable attention to mapping out oil-emergency response plans by region across the state. And the Ericksen measure has more detailed provisions about providing state grants to emergency-service responders.

Thursday's hearing had railroad, port and oil representatives supporting Ericksen's bill, while environmental groups contended it did not go far enough.

Bruce Swisher of the Sierra Club argued that the bills must make information about upcoming oil train shipments available to the public as well as emergency departments. "The communities, not just the first responders, need transparency about what goes through their communities," Swisher said.

Johan Hellman, representing the BNSF Railroad, said the company spent $125 million on track and crossing upgrades in Washington in 2013 and another $235 million in 2014. The railroad has also trained roughly 4,000 first responders in Washington on dealing with train derailments, he said.

In a statement, Ericksen said, "We're trying to identify the gaps in existing programs and fill them."

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 last July. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

The report by experts hired by the state Ecology Department 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. In 2013, 8.4 percent of oil arriving at Washington's five refineries came by rail, although the report indicates that the volume of oil shipped by rail to the refineries here was insignificant until 2011.

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

  

About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8