Rail shippers should pay more for oil spill risks

A little jittery about those black rail cars full of highly flammable crude oil that snake through South Sound communities? It’s hard not to be after three recent accidents, including one last summer that incinerated 47 people and leveled part of a town in Quebec.

Well, this isn’t going to allay any fears.

An investigation by The Oregonian has found that rail transport of crude oil, which is expected to continue increasing in the Northwest, is much less regulated than marine shipment. State regulators don’t know where, when or how many rail shipments are taking place because the railroads — which are lightly regulated by the Federal Railway Administration — aren’t required to reveal that. State officials have access only to information the railroads voluntarily provide.

Railroads maintain their own response plans to handle oil spills — uncoordinated with state regulators in Washington and Oregon. And neither state charges a per-barrel fee on rail transports. In Washington, the 5-cent-per-barrel fee — which funds oil spill response and prevention — applies only to marine shipments.

The Legislature could — and should — fix that. California charges a 6.5-cent-per-barrel fee on both rail and marine shipments. If Washington is to experience a higher risk of oil spill and catastrophic explosions due to an increased number of oil trains, then those contributing to that risk should bear the cost — not taxpayers.

Unfortunately, under current state law, taxpayers are exactly who will pay. The state Department of Ecology is asking the Legislature for an additional $650,000 this session to fund five new positions, including three people who would develop response plans. The positions are related to the increased number of oil trains — so why should the taxpayers bear the cost of funding them? Why shouldn’t those who reap the profits pay?

One way to do that would be for lawmakers to extend the current 5 cent barrel fee to oil transported by rail. They could raise the fee to 6 cents and it would still be lower than California’s if competition is a concern.

The part of the per-barrel fee (1 of 5 cents) that goes toward oil spill response is currently capped when the total reaches $9 million. That cap should be lifted or abolished and any reserve put into a contingency fund in the event of the worst-case scenario — a Quebec-like disaster or a massive oil spill into a river or the waters of Puget Sound.

It’s bad enough that residents face a heightened risk because of the growing number of oil trains in their communities. They shouldn’t also have to bear the financial burden.