Senate, House at odds over oil-train safety steps

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Tanker cars can carry oil or LPG.

The Washington Senate passed an oil transportation safety bill 26-23 along caucus lines Monday, setting up a showdown with a recently passed House Democrat bill.

"We have to make sure we do it right and we do it safely," said the Senate bill's sponsor Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said, "You can say this is not a perfect bill. But you can't say this bill doesn't make Washington safer."

However, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, argued, "The transportation of oil has changed dramatically, and we have not addressed that in this bill."

Before the final vote, the bill was bolstered by an extra disclosure provision relating to the volumes of oil passing through the state. That came from work by Ericksen and Ranker on an amendment that gives emergency responders a weekly update from railroads about the total amount of oil expected to go through an area each week. That information would not be broken down by individual trains and would not be available to the general public. By voice vote, the Senate overwhelmingly accepted that amendment.

Referring to accidents with oil trains, including one last week in Illinois, Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said Monday, "These accidents are happening more and more frequently, ... It's not a question of 'if," but 'when.' "

The House vote came last week on the same day as 21 cars on a 105-car oil train derailed near Galena, Ill. Five cars caught fire, and the blaze continued to burn the next day.

The Washington House passed an oil transportation safety bill 60-38. Consequently, significantly different oil transportation bills have been passed and sent to the opposite chambers.

The House bill, requested by Gov. Jay Inslee and sponsored by Seattle Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell, is more sweeping than the Senate measure, including a broader, more detailed public disclosure provision. Farrell’s legislation covers oil trains plus a long list of other oil-transportation safety matters — including spill-related emergency training and responses, tugboat regulations for oil shipped in Washington’s waters, information to be provided to the public and emergency agencies, and an oil-tax hike from the current four cents to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel.

Ericksen’s bill largely focuses on oil moved by rail, although it does call for a study and training work on the safety of marine transportation of oil. Ericksen’s bill extends the existing per-barrel tax to cover oil transferred by rail but does not increase the per-barrel tax. A split over the public notification provisions was at the heart of a House-Senate stalemate on this issue last year.


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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