Environmentalists hope to pack a public meeting on oil-by-rail safety Thursday evening in Olympia. The Department of Ecology is asking for comment about its draft study of spill risks related to the fast-growing practice of shipping oil by rail
Ecology’s risk study, which the Legislature authorized and Gov. Jay Inslee accelerated by issuing an executive order, was released Oct. 1 in draft form.
It makes numerous recommendations. It suggests giving better funding for spill responses and authority to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to fund additional track inspectors at higher pay. It also suggests UTC inspectors should have more authority to enter private shippers’ property for inspections.
The 5 p.m. meeting at the Red Lion hotel comes at a time when 17 local governments including Elma and Aberdeen have passed resolutions expressing concern about — or opposition to — oil-by-rail in Washington, according to the Washington Environmental Council’s tally. The Port of Olympia also expressed strong reservations recently about oil shipments.
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“We had over 200 people in Spokane yesterday. We‘re hoping for many more — over 600 people have already RSVP’d for tomorrow’s hearing,” Rebecca Ponzio, manager of the council’s oil campaign, said Wednesday. “This is an issue that is resonating with people.”
The state’s trade council of fire fighters has gone on record expressing concern about oil by rail safety. And that was echoed at the Spokane meeting where a deputy chief for the Spokane Valley Department said it would be “extremely challenged to respond” to a significant spill, according to the Spokesman-Review newspaper.
Lisa Copeland, spokeswoman for Ecology, said the meeting is meant to explain the study to the public and get comment on risks the department hasn’t noticed or addressed. DOE also is looking for suggestions to improve the state’s response.
The event starts with an open house at 5 p.m. that includes information booths staffed by experts in marine, rail and spill response. A presentation by DOE will start at 6, and the public can comment starting at 6:30.
Copeland said people can also comment online by going to the agency’s oil movement study page or sending comments by mail to the Ecology Spills Program, P.O. Box 47600, Olympia, WA 98504-7600.
Ponzio said environmentalists want to see the state require more disclosure of oil shipments besides those from Bakken and boost tug-escort requirements for oil tankers on the Columbia River. She said there already is worry about risks from current levels of shipments of volatile Bakken crude oil primarily from North Dakota in the wake of the 2013 disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
“The second piece being really strongly voiced is, we don’t want this. It is not the future of Washington that we want,’’ Ponzio said, suggesting clean energy alternatives are preferred.
Crude by rail shipments are expected to hit close to 3 billion gallons in Washington this year with an average of 19 trains passing through the state each week, according to Ecology.
About 11 to 16 trains with roughly 100 tank cars bring crude oil through South Sound each week, according to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway’s latest report on file at the state Military Department. Those trains pass through residential and rural areas and cross rivers including the Nisqually.
Industry and business groups are voicing support for oil shipments by rail to feed refineries in Tacoma, Anacortes and Cherry Point.
“Our state being so trade dependent, rail is an essential part of that. In my view, anything that limits or blocks rail is probably detrimental to that,” said Gary Chandler, vice president government affairs at the Association of Washington Business. He said AWB officials have spoken to counterparts at BNSF and “we can see that rail is addressing safety issues.’’
Matt Rose, executive chairman for BNSF, told The Olympian and The News Tribune in September that rail shipping can get safer and that his railway is putting $5 billion worth of investments into track maintenance and improvement nationally this year. Of that about $235 million is going into Washington state.