BELLINGHAM - In a meeting with local officials, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said he has been doing his best to get federal agencies to speed up the process of tightening safety regulations on shipment of crude oil by rail.
Larsen said the oil industry, railroads and federal regulators are scrambling to get caught up in response to the oil production boom in the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota.
"You have big companies arguing with big companies over how to do this right," said Larsen, a 2nd District Democrat. "Meanwhile, these trains are moving through our communities."
The BP Cherry Point refinery is already getting crude oil shipments via the main BNSF Railway Co. line through Bellingham and Ferndale, and the Phillips 66 refinery to the south is building its own crude oil rail terminal. Concern over those shipments deepened in recent months after an exploding crude oil train devastated a Quebec town and killed more than 40 people, and another oil train sent fireballs roaring into North Dakota skies after a derailment.
Among those meeting with Larsen were Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen; Bellingham City Council members Cathy Lehman and Michael Lilliquist; Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer; Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and Undersheriff Jeff Parks; Bellingham interim Fire Chief Bill Newbold, and Whatcom County Planning Manager Tyler Schroeder.
Chief Newbold told the group that while his department is well-trained and equipped for most rail accident scenarios, a major catastrophe like the ones in Quebec and North Dakota would require a cooperative effort from many area fire departments to control, and such a response would take time to mobilize.
"There's not one department that has enough foam to readily mitigate that," Newbold said.
Undersheriff Parks noted that some portions of the BNSF mainline are inaccessible to emergency vehicles.
"If it's down here on Chuckanut, you can't get anywhere near it," Parks said.
Larsen told the group that U.S. railroads carried 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013 - almost 20 times the oil train traffic just five years earlier. Both the railroad industry and federal regulators agree that most of the 92,000 cars being used for crude oil need to be replaced by cars better able to resist rupture in an accident.
At this point there is no clear path forward. The industry is looking for guidance from the Pipeline Safety and Hazardous Materials Administration, which is in the process of developing new safety rules for new rail cars, and a timetable for phasing out the older ones. Larsen said that agency doesn't expect to have the new rules in place before January 2015, and he has spoken to the head of the safety agency and to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to voice his concerns.
Larsen noted that replacing or retrofitting the older cars won't be a simple matter. Federal agencies may be reluctant to order all the older cars out of service quickly, because that would be disruptive to the industry.
"You would have a massive shortage of rail cars," Larsen said.
Given the lack of quick solutions to rail safety problems, Ferndale's Mayor Jensen said it would be best if oil shippers could take steps to remove volatile components that make much of the Bakken crude highly explosive. Larsen said that is sometimes done, but he had no information on how difficult it would be to make that practice the rule.
Locally, BP has announced acquisition of a fleet of 400 safer cars to supply Cherry Point, but company spokesmen acknowledge that the older, more rupture-prone cars may be used at times.
In a new development, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace announced Thursday, Feb. 20, that the railroad is taking bids for construction of 5,000 new, safer tank cars, without waiting for federal regulators. She said the cars would include thicker steel bodies and better heat-shielding.
"This reflects our commitment to crude-by-rail growth and improving the overall safety of crude transportation," Wallace said in an email.
She had no estimate of how quickly the cars could be manufactured and brought into service.
City Council member Lehman noted that the council and Port of Bellingham recently approved plans for waterfront redevelopment in areas near the rail line, without having solid information about rail safety issues.
"We're planning to house thousands more citizens in proximity to rail lines in the next 10 to 20 years," Lehman said.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on rail safety issues on Tuesday, Feb. 25, Larsen said, and he and other members of Congress will be questioning federal safety officials about their progress.
"There may not be 'the safest way' to move these types of materials, but there are certainly ways to make them safer," Larsen said.