Wash. cities call for increased oversight of oil trains

Wash. cities call for increased oversight of oil trains
An oil train heads south on the BNSF Railway line along Alaskan Way toward the train tunnel under downtown Seattle. (Business Journal photo | Marcus R. Donner)
SEATTLE (AP) - Concerned about fire and other safety issues, cities in Washington state are eyeing increased oversight of oil trains that rumble through their communities.

On Tuesday, a Seattle City Council committee is expected to discuss a resolution asking railway companies to consider restricting oil shipments through the city until further study. It also plans to consider calling for a statewide moratorium on oil-by-rail projects.

"The safety of our city and state are what is ultimately important here," Seattle Mayor Murray said. A vote of the full council is expected next Monday.

The meeting is set days after federal regulators announced tougher testing involving the flammability of crude oil before it is shipped by rail. The move came in response to a string of train accidents since last summer involving oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.

In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

The cities of Bellingham and Spokane last month passed resolutions calling for tougher scrutiny of oil shipments. In Olympia, state lawmakers at odds over how best to prepare for increasing oil trains said they're working to reach an agreement before the legislative session ends next week.

The federal government regulates interstate railroad commerce. State and local officials say they need to be prepared as the trains cut through heavily populated cities.

State and county regulators are starting to review three oil terminal projects that could bring millions of gallons of crude oil a day through the state.

The largest is proposed at the Port of Vancouver and could handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is deciding what should be studied during the environmental review of the $110 million project by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos.

Two other projects are proposed at Grays Harbor. A project by Westway could accept up to 9.6 million barrels of oil a year, or about one train every three days. Imperium Renewables' proposed expansion would add up to nine new storage tanks to store an additional 720,000 barrels.

One train typically has about 100 tanker cars, each carrying about 28,000 gallons.

Trains currently carry oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota through Spokane, the Tri-Cities, along the Columbia River and up the Interstate 5 corridor.

"We need to know what's happening and be able to prepare for it," said Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who sponsored House Bill 2347, an oil transportation safety bill that would, among other things, require shippers to report information to the public.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications committee, didn't give the bill a hearing before a deadline last Friday. Instead, the Ferndale Republican said he is working on getting bi-partisan support on a new measure.

"It's a quickly moving field and we're going to stay on top of it," said Ericksen, whose own bill on oil trains, Senate Bill 6524, failed to advance last month.

Any new bill would likely include a provision to extend a tax of 5 cents a barrel to oil arriving by rail that pays for state oil spill response and preparedness.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, also introduced a new bill on oil transportation safety, Senate Bill 6576.

Major sticking points include reporting requirements and whether to require tug escorts for oil tankers in Grays Harbor and on the Columbia River. Democrats and environmental groups want information to be reported to the public, and want to give the Department of Ecology authority to adopt rules on tug escorts.

"People aren't aware of potential safety and environmental impacts," said Clifford Traisman, state lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and the Washington Conservation Voters.

Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association said the information is sensitive and proprietary. "This is a very competitive industry and we want to keep that information that would be reported confidential," he added.

Johan Hellman with BNSF Railway, said the company recently announced it would purchase 5,000 tank cars that set a new standard for tank car safety. "Safety is our No. 1 priority," he said.