Report finds unreported BNSF oil spills

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A train carrying a class 3 flammable liquid (the category that crude oil falls into) passes a rail crossing on Lander Street in Sodo.

The Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commision has released a report recommending penalties against BNSF Railway Company for delays in the reporting of 14 hazardous material spills since last November. State rail safety rules require railroad companies to notify the Washington State Emergency Operations Center within 30 minutes of any spill.

Under state law, each day a spill goes unreported constitutes a separate violation. According to the report, a staff investigation found that BNSF committed 700 violations, which could warrant a $700,000 fine. It would be up to the three-member commission itself to decide on whether violations occurred and what fines, if any, to impose.

BNSF said in a statement that they are currently reviewing the report, but the railroad pledged, “There is nothing more important to us than safely transporting all of the commodities we carry, and we are committed to complying with all applicable local, state and federal guidelines.”

As for the specific violations, the statement referred to them as “very small releases” and promised that BNSF was “complying in good faith with the requirements from our agency partners.”

The incidents consisted mostly of minor leaks, but some involved BNSF's controversial transportation of oil by rail. In Blaine last November, crude oil was found on the side of a tank. In January, seven rail cars were found leaking crude oil in a Vancouver BNSF line, and a day later, six cars were found leaking crude oil in an Auburn facility. Last month, a UTC inspector found oil leaking down the side of a car in South Seattle.

In January, 100 gallons of lube oil spilled in the BNSF Interbay yard in Seattle in an incident involving a mechanical problem with a locomotive.

Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a leading critic of the oil shipments, said the report gave him "grave concerns." He suggested the issue is a reflection of BNSF not taking the rules seriously. “Their attitude towards compliance could lead to a major disaster,” he said.

The debate over shipping oil through Washington has been especially heated in the last few years. A draft report from the Department of Ecology published last fall says that crude oil, once predominantly shipped by tanker from Alaska and other sources, has been increasingly moved by rail.

Additionally, crude oil production in North America is more than 11 times what it was in 2003, from 3.4 million gallons per day to 37.8 million. Part of the increase is thanks to shale oil from Texas, but much of it comes from a rock formation in North Dakota and Montana known as the Bakken formation. Newer technologies have allowed greater access to the oil reserves within that formation. But according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, that oil contains several times the amount of combustible gasses, making it much more volatile.

As many as thirteen trains each carrying around 1 million gallons of crude oil pass through Seattle every week, and most of it is from the Bakken region.

For O’Brien the major concern is a disaster similar to what happened recently in West Virginia, when a rail car containing oil from North Dakota exploded. In 2013, a car in Quebec exploded and killed 47 people. “We’ve already had derailments in Seattle,” said O’Brien, referring to an incident last July when three railcars containing crude oil came off the tracks under the Magnolia Bridge. Although there were no spills or injuries from that incident, O’Brien worries what might be next. “There’s no insurance big enough to cover a disaster like in Quebec.”

BNSF has made some strides to prepare Seattle for an incident. The railroad has placed a trailer in their Seattle train yard that contains foaming chemicals designed to put out oil fires. The company has also offered to train local firefighters for how to deal with an oil fire.

In their statement, BNSF said the UTC contacted railroad officials last January urging a review of the rail company’s notification process. UTC confirmed the staff sent BNSF the letter, but said it was in February, not January. Since then, continued the railroad's statement, “BNSF updated its practices to address concerns identified by the UTC. We will continue to work closely with the UTC moving forward on this issue.”

When asked what he would do specifically in reaction, O’Brien brought up the larger environmental concerns that have led to protests about oil shipments. He said, “I want [BNSF] to pay for the cost of an incident.” Once BNSF does the numbers, believes O’Brien “the cost of crude oil won’t pencil out versus solar or wind.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.