Politics & Government

Oil by rail data shows 10-15 trains of Bakken crude move weekly through Thurston County, 11-16 go in Pierce

The state Military Department has publicly released oil-trains data from four operators of rail lines that carry the volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and Montana inside Washington state.

The data released on Tuesday included an oil-traffic report from BNSF Railway that shows 10 to 15 unit trains of volatile Bakken crude oil are shipped through Thurston County every week and 11 to 16 such trains pass through Pierce County. A unit train has about 100 tanker cars each carrying about 680 barrels, which makes each train worth about 68,000 barrels of crude, according to the state Department of Ecology.

On Monday, it was disclosed that Tacoma Rail moves three trains of 90 to 120 tanker cars per week - all within Pierce County. The oil may go to U.S. Oil, which operates a refinery near the waterfront.

The oil-by-rail data had been considered secret until the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an order in May for companies to release such information to emergency response personnel in each state by June 6 - if shipments exceed 1 million gallons. Concerns over the oil’s movement have grown steadily after at least four incidents including the disastrous July 2013 explosions in Lac Megantic, Canada, that killed 47 and left that community scarred.

The Military Department, which oversees the Emergency Management Division, refused to cloak the reports in secrecy and gave railroads an opportunity to seek a court order blocking their release. It is the agency’s typical procedure to notify third parties about an information release when potentially proprietary information is involved, spokesman Chris Barnes said Tuesday.

But no court action was taken, and the military released details to The Olympian, News Tribune and other news organizations that had requested the data. It also posted links to the BNSF report with three others on its web site Tuesday afternoon.

Courtney Wallace of BNSF Railways told McClatchy Newspapers that the company changed its tune about releasing the data once it learned from federal transportation officials that the data wasn’t protected from disclosure.

“Once it became clear from the federal government that crude oil was not considered sensitive, secure information, we continued on our path of simply complying” with the department’s emergency order, spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an email to McClatchy for a story by reporter Curtis Tate.

Oil by rail shipments have skyrocketed in Washington state and 17 million barrels were shipped inside the state last year, according to state officials. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has said that figure could triple in the next few years.

The oil-by-rail data had been the subject of hearings in the state Legislature this year, and a bill requiring such disclosure passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus, which sought a study instead of disclosure. BNSF officials claimed in testimony that too much detailed disclosure would put them at odds with the Homeland Security Department, based on terrorism concerns. The Western States Petroleum Association testified there were proprietary concerns related to oil volumes.

BNSF is considered the nation’s largest shipper of crude by rail.

Officials with county-level emergency management organizations have been reviewing the data for a few weeks since shortly after it was turned over to the Military Department on June 6. It remains to be seen how well the data will satisfy the needs of emergency responders.

Kathy Estes, director of Thurston County Emergency Management, said last week that she would like to see even more detailed information showing oil volumes. The data she received did not specify how much oil is on a train.

“My perspective is we are getting snapshots in time. We don’t have a lot of information about historic quantities. We are just getting familiar with the receipt of the data and how we will use it,’’ Estes said. “This is new for us and we’re happy to know more about what is occurring here.’‘

Estes said that it is possible the county’s emergency management plans will have to change once they get a better sense of the hazards. She said additional drills or changes in drills are quite possible.

“It’s a logical result. Because it is a bigger hazard in our communities we will spend more time preparing” for, Estes said.

Spokesmen for Pierce County Emergency Management have not yet responded to a reporter’s queries last week about how it may respond to the new information.