Wash. lawmakers question safety of crude-oil trains

Rail, oil industries resisting calls to disclose more information over security concerns


Jan. 27-- As U.S. oil production soars and additional Canadian oil resources are becoming available stateside, crude oil is being shipped by rail through communities with greater frequency. Washington is no exception.

Oil-laden trains carrying crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota pass through the South Sound every day or two, headed to refineries in Tacoma and Anacortes. Export terminals on the drawing board for Vancouver and Grays Harbor are likely to send even more trains across the state. Some may come through the South Sound.

How many, how often and along which routes -- those are questions without clear answers. So far, the oil and rail industries are not saying much, which has stirred enough worry that Washington state lawmakers and local community leaders are starting to look into it.

"We're in a situation where our town would be split in half if there were a derailment," Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart told a legislative committee in Olympia last week, urging passage of a bill that would force oil refineries to report their oil-by-rail shipments to the Department of Ecology. Ecology would use the data for assessing safety risks and devising emergency response plans. In a nod to an explosive and deadly derailment that killed 47 people in Quebec last year, Stuckart compared oil trains laden with the lighter, more flammable Bakken oil from the Dakotas to "taking bombs through our city."

But the rail and oil industries are saying they run safe operations, and they are resisting the call to disclose more information about what they are hauling, how much and how often.

BNSF regional spokesman Johan Hellman downplayed risks at a House Environmental Committee last week, saying that the number one priority for BNSF's 3,500 employees in the state is safety. The railway company has a 215-person hazard response team with personnel stationed around the state in the event of an emergency.

Hellman also said disclosure of information about the amounts, timing and routes for oil transport could result in competitive and even national security risks. Post-9/11, the federal Department of Homeland Security shippers placed limits on the distribution of some information.

Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association suggested any disclosures be patterned after an approach in California that, he said, gives regulators the data they need but prevents release of individual oil companies' data to the public.

Others -- including Republican Rep. Shelly Short of Addy and a parade of pilotage and marine industry spokesmen -- pointed out that Washington has a pretty good record of shipping oil without big spills over waterways.

But lawmakers do not appear to be reassured about rail shipments. Nor do advocates for environmental safety, who cited a recent report by McClatchy Newspapers on a huge increase in rail spills of oil last year.

The McClatchy report analyzed nearly four decades of federal data on oil spills and found that more crude oil spilled last year in rail accidents than over the rest of the period since 1975. Derailments led to spills totaling more than 1.15 million gallons in 2013 compared to 800,000 gallons between 1975 and 2012, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"I think the basic message is that the future doesn't look like the past when it comes to oil transport. It wasn't until September of 2012 that we had the first loaded 'unit oil train' in Washington state," said Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute, an environmental think-tank based in Seattle. "We're looking now at having maybe as many as ... 10 or 11 per day."

A unit oil train is one dedicated to oil and typically has 100 tank cars hauling a total of about 68,000 barrels of crude. De Place's estimates are based on Washington having as many as 10 oil terminals operating at capacity in the future -- but that depends on how fully the Bakken oil source is tapped and how many terminals now in the proposal stage actually get up and running.

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