Crops shouldn’t take a back seat to oil shipments

The surge of oil and coal rail cars traveling through the state is raising red flags that go beyond safety and environmental concerns.

Washington wheat farmers and those whose livelihoods depend on prompt grain shipments fear that they’re being crowded off the rails – or at least delayed – by the push to transport more oil and coal, according to The Seattle Times. Farm shipments are being delayed by weeks, sometimes missing the ships they were supposed to be loaded onto.

For a state with a heavy interest in reliable export of agricultural products, that’s not good news. And fears are that the problem would only worsen if a proposed coal export terminal is built in Whatcom County.

Farmers particularly are feeling the pinch of delayed agricultural shipments, but so do businesses like Tacoma Transload, which puts grain onto container ships at the Port of Tacoma. Rail delays have meant longer operating hours and higher costs. On July 25, company crews were loading grain that was due in June.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the nation’s second-largest railroad and the major one serving the Northwest, says it’s working on the problem and will greatly reduce the grain car backlog by mid-September. But it’s unclear whether its efforts will be enough to handle an expected big harvest.

While the emphasis on coal and oil cars may be hurting agricultural interests, it’s been a boon to state refineries and ports. Increasingly, however, that benefit doesn’t seem worth the risk incurred, particularly with oil trains.

Just last year an oil train derailment destroyed part of a town in Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people. Similar trains regularly move through populated areas of Western Washington – through Tacoma and Seattle as well as smaller cities like Puyallup and Steilacoom.

In Seattle, the trains ply tracks near its sports stadiums, often delaying traffic. The city dodged a bullet July 24 when five cars in a 102-car oil train derailed directly beneath the Magnolia Bridge. Three cars were carrying the more volatile Bakken crude oil. Fortunately the train was moving slowly and no oil leaked – which could have led to an explosion.

Recently released information reveals that about three trains of Bakken crude oil move through Pierce County every week. Each trains consists of 90 to 120 tank cars; each car carries about 28,000 gallons. The amount could more than double by 2020.

Unfortunately, railroads are still using a type of oil car that the National Transportation Safety Board says has a tendency to split open and explode in accidents. BNSF is updating to safer cars, but it will be a while before the old ones are gone.

If potentially dangerous oil trains are to increasingly create risk and delays in Washington, they should pay a higher share of the costs incurred by local and state governments to address those problems. Currently there is no per-barrel fee on oil transported by rail in Washington; California charges a 6.5-cent-per-barrel fee, which funds emergency response efforts.

Lawmakers should address the lack of a per-barrel fee on rail transport in the coming session of the Legislature.