Politics & Government

Oil trains: South Sound first responders try to get grip on what new data mean for safety

Two or three trains loaded with Bakken crude oil rumble every day through towns in south Thurston County and suburban Pierce County, and the growing number of 100-tanker trains is bringing risks that emergency responders are starting to scrutinize.

Concerns over the oil’s movement have grown steadily after several derailments in the U.S. and Canada, including the disastrous July 2013 explosions in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

An oil-traffic report from BNSF Railway released by the state Military Department last week shows 10 to 15 standard oil trains of volatile Bakken crude oil are shipped through Thurston County every week. The same BNSF report says 11 to 16 of its trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of crude pass weekly through Pierce County – along BNSF’s main lines that go through Steilacoom and University Place, near Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, and inland through Sumner, where the clatter of passing freight trains shakes buildings in the nearby business district.

A typical train has about 100 tanker cars each carrying about 680 barrels, which means each train hauls about 68,000 barrels of crude, according to the state Department of Ecology.

A report from municipal Tacoma Rail says that shipper also moves three trains of 90 to 120 tanker cars per week – all within Pierce County. U.S. Oil’s refinery on the Tacoma Tideflats receives oil by rail.

Eric de Place, policy director of Seattle-based Sightline Institute, has been monitoring oil and coal train activity in the Northwest in recent years. He said the reports show even higher amounts of oil being shipped by rail than what he’d estimated was going to the state’s five refineries. With two more refineries proposed in Anacortes and Ferndale and three crude-oil shipping terminals proposed at Grays Harbor, there is potential for much higher levels of oil traffic on the rails, he said.

“To me, the numbers just reinforce what I've been saying for a while: that communities are at risk and should have some influence over how dangerous goods are transported through them,” de Place said.

Kathy Estes, director of Thurston County Emergency Management, said last week in an interview that she would like to see more detailed information showing oil volumes, which, according to the state Department of Ecology, have skyrocketed in the past two years. They totaled about 17 million barrels or roughly 250 trains statewide in 2013. But at this point, more details won’t be forthcoming without legislation or additional federal directives.

Sheri Badger, spokeswoman for Pierce County Emergency Management, said her agency was still working out how it can share the information it does have with local fire departments.

“We are going to be creating a response plan. That should be completed by September. It will be incorporated into our comprehensive emergency management plan,’’ Badger said. “It’ll just be looking at how our current process can apply to the intricacies of what an oil spill means.’’

The Department of Ecology is also looking into safety needs and announced Friday it has awarded a $250,000 contract to Environmental Research Consulting of New York to produce a report for lawmakers that assesses rail and marine transportation of oil. An initial report is due in October and is to identify gaps in spill prevention, emergency preparedness and the response system, Ecology said.

Military Department makes oil reports public

The state Military Department released the oil trains data last week in response to public records requests by media outlets including The Olympian and The News Tribune.

Data showing the frequency of trains carrying the lighter, more volatile North Dakota oil were kept secret by shippers until the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an order in May for companies to release information to emergency response personnel in each state by June 6.

The lack of public data on oil trains was the subject of hearings and legislation in the state Legislature this year. A Democrat-sponsored bill requiring oil companies to report volumes and frequency of fuel shipments passed the House. It was blocked in the Senate by the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus, which sought a study instead of disclosure.

Officials with BNSF, the nation’s largest shipper of crude by rail, claimed in testimony that detailed disclosure would put it at odds with the Homeland Security Department, based on security and terrorism concerns. The Western States Petroleum Association testified there were proprietary concerns related to announcing oil volumes and schedules.

Wallace said the company changed its position and decided not to challenge the Military Department’s decision to disclose the data once the federal DOT determined the information was not “sensitive security information,” which would have protected it from disclosure.

Federal DOT authorities are requiring disclosures only for shipments in excess of 1 million gallons.

Andrew Kinney of Thurston Emergency Management told a gathering of fire chiefs last week in Lacey that Union Pacific trains using the main tracks through South Sound are also bringing smaller quantities of Bakken crude oil into Washington. But it’s less than 1 million gallons – or less than about 35 tanker cars, he explained.

First responders want more training

Fire chiefs in Thurston and Pierce counties are looking at getting more training for their staffs that is specifically linked to oil spill hazards. BNSF is allocating $5 million this year to pay for multiday training sessions for local first-responders.

“It’s room and board, tuition and flight assistance for first responders to get this training in Pueblo, Colorado,’’ BNSF’s Northwest regional spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said. She added that 700 first responders are already signed up, including 120 from Washington.

“I definitely think we will be sending somebody or several people if we can,” said Tina Vanderhoof, administrative chief for the Tenino Fire Department, which has rail lines running through one end of town. “We need to be covered. It doesn’t matter if it’s an oil train or whatever, you need to be ready.’’

John McDonald, deputy chief at East Pierce Fire & Rescue in Bonney Lake, also expects staff from his agency to get the training offered by BNSF. The main rail line runs directly through the town of Sumner which is part of his jurisdiction.

Overall, McDonald thinks fire agencies are prepared – “to the extent that we have plans in place to deal with hazardous materials and specifically flammable liquids. We are just trying to be sure the plans we have in place are adequate for this specific kind of (oil) emergency. ... (For instance) if we have a fire, do we have enough firefighting foam?”

But McDonald said the frequency of oil shipments reported by BNSF doesn’t change what they need to do in terms of preparing for a catastrophic derailment.

“Our response on the ground doesn’t change any knowing we have two trains a week, four trains a week or 10 trains a week … Does the risk go up? Common sense would say the greater exposure you have, the greater the risk,’’ McDonald said.

BNSF Railways to offer equipment, training

Wallace of Texas-based BNSF said the company puts a premium on safety and is spending $5 billion this year to improve or expand its continental system including track upgrades, maintenance and safety equipment. A investment of $235 million is planned for Washington this year, up from $125 million in 2013.

Besides the trainings offered in Colorado, she said BNSF provides weekend trainings for local fire and hazardous materials teams, typically bringing a tanker car to a community for the demonstration. This training was given to 900 firefighters or hazardous materials responders in Washington and Oregon last year, she said.

The company has emergency response teams around the state and spill-response equipment for hazardous materials – including trailers with foam dispensers – at sites in Everett, Seattle, Longview, Columbia Gorge, Pasco and Spokane, Wallace said. The railway also has three response contractors in the Puget Sound area that have equipment and personnel in Tacoma that can be deployed throughout the South Sound, Wallace said.

To augment that response, if ever needed, the company will be providing free equipment to first-responder agencies, she said.