Politics & Government

Ecology launching study of spill response need at Nisqually River from passing oil trains

The state Department of Ecology says it is asking for the public’s help in crafting a response plan for potential oil spills into the Nisqually River from passing trains.

Railways since 2012 have begun hauling larger amounts of volatile oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to refineries in Washington.

A one-hour public meeting is planned for 7 p.m. Monday at the agency headquarters auditorium, 300 Desmond Drive in Lacey. The effort is one of nine inland response plans the agency is preparing using money provided this year by the Legislature, Ecology spokeswoman Lisa Copeland said Friday.

Copeland said the plans can ensure that first responders know well in advance where critical or sensitive environmental sites are, what resources are available, and what specific needs they might need to address.

“The point of them is so that if an oil spill happens, the first responders don’t even have to think about what to do,” Copeland said.

About 10 to 15 trains, each carrying about 100 oil tanker cars, pass through Thurston County weekly, and another 11 to 16 pass through Pierce County, according to oil-transport reports that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and other train operators have been required to file with the state Military Department since June. The railroads say their safety record is good but acknowledge there are accident risks.

Spurred by the deadly 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and more recent but smaller derailments in the U.S., state lawmakers authorized $652,000 for Ecology to develop nine geographic response plans in inland areas such as the Nisqually. The agency has about 20 such plans for Puget Sound and marine areas where oil vessels have long transported fuel oil.

Another $300,000 is paying for Ecology and a consultant to prepare a marine and rail transportation study of risks posed by hauling oil by rail through the state. A preliminary report from the statewide risk study is due Oct. 1, hastened by Gov. Jay Inslee, and a draft report is due Dec. 1.

A response plan for Lake Washington in King County was completed two weeks ago, and the Lacey meeting is the first in a series over the next few weeks to address oil risks in watersheds such as the Chehalis River, Cowlitz River, Clark River, Columbia River to the south, and in the Duwamish and Green rivers to the north.

Copeland said Monday’s meeting is an informational gathering to take suggestions for shaping the response plan. Information is available on the agency’s website, and comment will be taken by email — at grps@ecy.wa.gov — through Oct. 15.