State lawmakers wrangle over oil train safety as deadline nears


Oil trains

Crude oil tanker cars line up in the new railroad loop at the BP Cherry Point refinery northwest of Ferndale, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014.


OLYMPIA — State lawmakers at odds over how best to prepare for increasing oil trains traveling through Washington say they're working to reach an agreement before the legislative session ends next week.

The federal government regulates interstate railroad commerce. Concerned about fire and other safety issues, state 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 — one at the Port of Vancouver and two at Grays Harbor — that could bring millions of gallons of crude oil a day through the state. That's in addition to crude oil already traveling through Washington to the state's current refineries, including two in Whatcom County.

"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, chairman 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 bipartisan 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.

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