Don’t let oil train safety legislation get derailed

Two oil train derailments this week should dispel any notion that improved tank cars are all that’s needed to safely handle the staggering increase in oil transported by rail.

The trains carrying crude oil that derailed Monday near Charleston, West Virginia, and Sunday in eastern Canada were hauling the improved CPC-1232 tank cars that are supposed to be harder to roll over and offer more resistance to puncture. Yet both derailments resulted in massive explosions.

Fortunately, neither accident took place in a heavily populated area – think downtown Tacoma or Seattle, which oil trains routinely cross – and there were no fatalities or serious injuries. In West Virginia, residents near the derailment site were evacuated, and cars went into the Kanawha River, a source of drinking water. Beyond the obvious threat to human life, think of the environmental disaster that could happen if a similar accident took place in the Puget Sound region.

New federal rules requiring the sturdier tank cars are expected to take effect in May, but it could be several years before all the older cars are replaced. In the meantime, the recent derailments show that much more is needed to protect communities affected by oil train traffic.

That’s the purpose of House Bill 1449 and companion legislation in the state Senate, SB 5087. The bills, requested by Gov. Jay Inslee, would require railroads to do oil spill response planning and provide information to the state Department of Ecology about their oil transports. They would also increase the 4 cent tax per 42-gallon barrel that is charged to maritime shipments of oil to 10 cents per barrel, and start also assessing the tax on oil brought in by rail and pipeline.

The tax funds oil spill and response programs. With more oil now coming through the state by rail, it’s important to start capturing tax revenue to help address problems associated with that form of transport. The cost should be borne by those who profit from the transport, not by taxpayers.

Those measures are long overdue. They address some of the recommendations made by the Department of Ecology – working with the Utilities and Transportation Commission, emergency management officials and other stakeholders – after studying public health and safety risks associated with oil transport.

Competing legislation, Substitute Senate Bill 5057, also addresses the issue of rail transport of oil. Sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, it doesn’t go quite as far as HB 1449/SB 5087. For one thing, it keeps the per-barrel tax at 4 cent – but does extend it to rail shipments.

With Republicans controlling the Senate and Ericksen chairing its Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, it’s probably safe to say that compromise will be needed if anything is to be done this session on rail safety.

Fortunately, there looks to be plenty of room for compromise here. Protecting Washington lives shouldn’t become a partisan issue.