WA lawmakers question safety of crude-oil trains

bshannon@theolympian.comJanuary 27, 2014 

As U.S. oil production soars and additional Canadian oil resources are becoming available stateside, crude oil is being shipped by rail through communities with greater frequency. Washington is no exception.

Oil-laden trains carrying crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota pass through the South Sound every day or two, headed to refineries in Tacoma and Anacortes. Export terminals on the drawing board for Vancouver and Grays Harbor are likely to send even more trains across the state. Some may come through the South Sound.

How many, how often and along which routes – those are questions without clear answers. So far, the oil and rail industries are not saying much, which has stirred enough worry that Washington state lawmakers and local community leaders are starting to look into it.

“We’re in a situation where our town would be split in half if there were a derailment,” Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart told a legislative committee in Olympia last week, urging passage of a bill that would force oil refineries to report their oil-by-rail shipments to the Department of Ecology. Ecology would use the data for assessing safety risks and devising emergency response plans. In a nod to an explosive and deadly derailment that killed 47 people in Quebec last year, Stuckart compared oil trains laden with the lighter, more flammable Bakken oil from the Dakotas to “taking bombs through our city.”

But the rail and oil industries are saying they run safe operations, and they are resisting the call to disclose more information about what they are hauling, how much and how often.

BNSF regional spokesman Johan Hellman downplayed risks at a House Environmental Committee last week, saying that the number one priority for BNSF’s 3,500 employees in the state is safety. The railway company has a 215-person hazard response team with personnel stationed around the state in the event of an emergency.

Hellman also said disclosure of information about the amounts, timing and routes for oil transport could result in competitive and even national security risks. Post-9/11, the federal Department of Homeland Security shippers placed limits on the distribution of some information.

Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association suggested any disclosures be patterned after an approach in California that, he said, gives regulators the data they need but prevents release of individual oil companies’ data to the public.

Others – including Republican Rep. Shelly Short of Addy and a parade of pilotage and marine industry spokesmen – pointed out that Washington has a pretty good record of shipping oil without big spills over waterways.

But lawmakers do not appear to be reassured about rail shipments. Nor do advocates for environmental safety, who cited a recent report by McClatchy Newspapers on a huge increase in rail spills of oil last year. The report analyzed nearly four decades of federal data on oil spills and found that more crude oil spilled last year in rail accidents than over the rest of the period since 1975. Derailments led to spills totaling more than 1.15 million gallons in 2013 compared to 800,000 gallons between 1975 and 2012, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“I think the basic message is that the future doesn’t look like the past when it comes to oil transport. It wasn’t until September of 2012 that we had the first loaded ‘unit oil train’ in Washington state,” said Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute, an environmental think-tank based in Seattle. “We’re looking now at having maybe as many as ... 10 or 11 per day.”

A unit oil train is one dedicated to oil and typically has 100 tank cars hauling a total of about 68,000 barrels of crude. De Place’s estimates are based on Washington having as many as 10 oil terminals operating at capacity in the future – but that depends on how fully the Bakken oil source is tapped and how many terminals now in the proposal stage actually get up and running.

David Byers, manager of the oil-spill response program at the Department of Ecology, said one full unit train arrives every two to three days at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes. He described shipments as sporadic at the U.S. Oil & Refining Co. facility in Tacoma. A News Tribune story last June suggested U.S. Oil & Refining could handle several 100-car shipments weekly.

Each of the trains bound for Tacoma or Anacortes is believed to travel through Thurston and Pierce counties. But Byers said his agency does not have a good handle on how the traffic is routed. With that uncertainty in mind, Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle has proposed House Bill 2347. Farrell said she is seeking more sunlight on the operations of oil companies and railroads that are shipping crude oil by rail. She said she also wants to give the Department of Ecology and communities more tools so they can anticipate and respond quickly to spills.

Farrell’s measure carries an estimated cost of $407,734. It requires the Department of Ecology to compile quarterly reports on oil transportation traffic in the state using information collected from refineries. It also orders the Office of Financial Management to study the state’s capacity to respond to accidents involving oil trains.

The bill goes beyond oil trains. It triples penalties for spills of oil in some waterways if the operators acted recklessly or with negligence, and Farrell wants to give Ecology authority to write rules that could require a second tug escort for certain tankers hauling oil through the waters of Puget Sound.

The Senate, controlled by a Republican-led coalition, also may look at the issue. Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island has a measure in the works, and Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, who chairs the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, said he also is developing one.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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