State agencies gear up for new oil-spill risks

Staff writerMay 5, 2014 

While two oil-terminal proposals at Hoquiam work through the environmental review process, state agencies are increasing their efforts to gauge the adequacy of Washington’s oil-spill response.

Regulators have been hampered by not having access to full details of rail shipments. Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate this year tried to pass legislation requiring oil terminals to report to the state Department of Ecology on the amount and frequency of shipments.

In the end, that legislative effort fell apart as Senate Republicans and House Democrats failed to reach an agreement that satisfied concerns of environmentalists and the rail and oil industries.

But lawmakers did agree to put $300,000 in the state budget for a risk evaluation. They added another $652,000 for geographic response plans that Ecology is developing for inland areas — hoping to match the levels of response the state has shown for marine spills.

“We have an excellent track record on response on the marine side. Our goal is to bring that up on the rail side,” said Lisa Copeland, spokeswoman for Ecology’s oil-spill response program. “We’re committed to creating a system that can prepare for and respond to oil spills on the inland side as well as on the marine side.”

But she acknowledged “this is new for Washington state — the crude by rail. It’s uncharted area. It’s going to take some work to figure out what that bigger picture looks like.”

One of the complications is jurisdiction, which in the case of railroads is federal.

BNSF Railway, the operator of major north-south rail lines along the Columbia River and roughly parallel to Interstate 5, has resisted disclosure of details of oil shipments, citing Homeland Security concerns about terror attacks. In testimony at the state House this year, BNSF spokesman Johan Hellman said the company has spill response teams around the state and is ready to mobilize them if trains spill oil.

The oil industry has voiced similar concerns but also worries about having competitor firms know about their plans in advance.

State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, recently wrote U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urging him to accelerate the enactment of tougher rules for rail transports of oil.

Even before last week’s Lynchburg, Virginia, derailment that sent oil cars into the James River, Foxx told Congress that regulators were working as fast as they can to write and adopt tougher regulations, according to The Associated Press.

But Foxx complained that oil companies have not provided data he asked for, and he said there was understaffing in the agency at DOT that regulates the shipping of flammable liquids. “We have a million shipments of hazardous materials moving around this country every day, and we have 50 inspectors,” Foxx told The AP.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who had a hearing on the issue in the Senate last month, is warning that last year’s oil traffic could triple in 2014 and hit perhaps 200 million barrels.

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