Politics & Government

700 show up to tell Ecology: Tougher steps needed to ensure safety of oil-by-rail shipping

Critics of the massive growth in oil shipments by rail in Washington ganged up on state regulators Thursday night in Olympia during a meeting called to examine the risks of oil shipping.

The real issue in Thursday’s meeting, which followed a similar session Tuesday in Spokane, is the state’s draft report on oil-spill risks and the state’s ability to respond to spills on land and in waterways. Dale Jensen, who oversees the Department of Ecology’s spill program, said the goal is to keep the public as safe as possible.

But the crowd of nearly 700 took plenty of shots at hauling oil by rail, and some urged the practice be stopped.

“We simply need to say no to Big Oil. We need to say no to oil trains. We need to move forward with clean reliable energy,” urged Cathy Wolfe, one of three Thurston County commissioners who spoke critically of the oil industry’s fast-growing shipments of volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and Montana, which is expected to total nearly 3 billion gallons this year.

Others speaking out were Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello, who urged steps to ensure safe transport and adequate equipment for fire fighters and other first responders. Mello said a Tacoma port disaster risks 40,000 jobs.

Ecology’s draft report suggests better funding for agencies tasked with spill responses. It also recommends changes in the rail fee structure to let the state Utilities and Transportation Commission hire additional track inspectors at higher pay, and changes in law to let UTC inspectors enter the private property of oil terminals to inspect equipment and rail tankers.

The UTC believes it needs to triple its inspection staff to 12, from four today, and it needs legislation to accomplish what the agency believes is prudent to do, according to UTC transportation policy adviser Jason Lewis. In an interview, he said the agency has 3,000 public crossings to monitor and inspect. Another 3,000 private ones are out of the UTC’s jurisdiction.

BNSF Railway says it has not had spills from derailments since oil-by-rail traffic began spiking three years ago, and the major oil shipper said its $5 billion national investment in track safety and maintenance this year includes $235 million in Washington state.

The company also favors what it describes as an aggressive phase-out of the first-generation DOT-111 tanker cars that have been implicated in explosive derailments. It also touts free training that it provides yearly to thousands of first responders, including 600 so far this year in Washington.

BNSF is still formulating its response to the study draft. A few representatives of the Association of Washington Business, which supports shipping of oil and other products by rail, looked on but did not speak.

About 19 fully loaded oil trains crisscross the state every week, and that amount could jump to 59 if all oil terminals and and refinery proposals under way are approved, according to Ecology. About 11 to 16 trains — each hauling about 3 million gallons of crude in 100 tanker cars — pass through rural and suburban areas of Thurston and Pierce counties each week, according to reports BNSF has filed with the state.

Ecology’s study was authorized in March by the Legislature, and Gov. Jay Inslee expedited it with an executive order during the summer. The first draft went public Oct. 1, and revisions are due Dec. 1. A final version goes to lawmakers in early March.

But it was clear Thursday that many think the state is moving too slowly and not going far enough to confront the growth in shipping, which has grown vastly from virtually no shipments three years ago.

About 300 people signed up to speak in a Red Lion conference room, and Ecology spills-program spokeswoman Lisa Copeland said public comment was taken until 11:20 p.m.

Besides Wolfe and Thurston County commissioners Sandra Romero and Karen Valenzuela, speakers included state Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia, representatives of the Quinault and Nisqually tribes, city council members from Vancouver and Aberdeen, small business owners from Vancouver who have been fighting Tesoro’s oil terminal proposal along the Columbia River, and dozens of activists including physicians.

Mayor Buxbaum cited nine oil train derailments in recent years, including the deadly Lac-Mégantic disaster that killed 47 people in Quebec last year, and he warned that the 2.8 billion gallons of oil expected to traverse the state this year could triple if the oil industry’s infrastructure proposals are completed.

Geoff Simpson, a former state lawmaker and 24-year staffer of the Kent Fire Department, said he doesn’t think the state’s emergency responders are adequately prepared or equipped to deal with a major oil by rail disaster like Lac-Mégantic, even in the best-equipped departments that saw losses of funds and staffing during the Great Recession.

During a rally before the meeting, other activists organized by the Washington Environmental Council spoke out.

“We will not get on board,” said Ed Johnstone, fisheries policy spokesman for the Quinault tribe, which is alarmed by three oil terminals proposed at Grays Harbor. “We are opposed to oil by rail ... Not now. Not ever!”

Don Orange, owner of a small business in Vancouver and critic of Tesoro’s shipping terminal proposal, said the oil shipping is good for bigger oil interests but not small businesses.

“Do we want to be the toilet for big oil?” he asked. “Hell no!”