Unanswered questions about oil trains
Two questions popped up Tuesday at a Washington House committee hearing on an oil train safety bill. No one could answer them.
The first came from Bob Rudolph, a resident of Steilacoom, a Pierce County city where a railroad line lies next to Puget Sound. He asked: Are there any plans to deal with a possible train accident spilling oil into Puget Sound? The hearing room held railroad, oil industry and government emergency officials, none of whom could answer.
The other question at the House Finance Committee hearing came from Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland. He asked: If an oil train wrecked in an area crisscrossed by the jurisdictions of several local and state agencies, how long would it take to get a unified command in place? Six hours? Three days?
Barnaby Dow, representing the King County Office of Emergency Management department, said the county has the resources to deal with such an emergency. But he did not know how long it would take to set up a unified command structure.
The Finance Committee held the Tuesday hearing on an oil train safety bill introduced by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle. The House Environment Committee has already recommended — along party lines — that the House pass the bill. The Finance Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether to recommend passage.
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. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.
Then this year on Feb. 16, 27 cars on a 109-car oil train derailed in West Virginia, causing fire-balling explosions and the evacuation of more than 100 nearby residents. On Sunday, newspapers nationwide published an Associated Press story on a previously unpublicized 2014 federal report that predicted an average of 10 oil train accidents will occur annually during the next several years.
If the House passes Farrell's bill, it will likely run into a bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, that is working its way through the Senate.
Farrell's bill covers a long list of oil transportation safety matters — including spill-related emergency training and responses, tugboat regulations regarding oil shipping in Washington's waters, information to be provided to emergency agencies and an oil tax hike from four cents to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel. Ericksen's bill is similar, but has no public disclosure requirements about planned shipments, as does the Farrell's bill. And it addresses only oil transportation by rail.
Both bills increase per-barrel oil taxes to cover emergency response and planning expenses. Farrell's bill would impose charges on both crude and refined oil, while Ericksen's addresses only crude oil. But a split over the public notification provisions was at the heart of a House-Senate stalemate last year.
While that difference over advance disclosure looms again, the House hearing could suggest that lawmakers will face more questions about preparedness for oil-train accidents than they have anticipated.