Paying to protect ourselves from North Dakota crude

The News TribuneJuly 1, 2014 

There’s good news about the explosive oil tankers rolling through our communities: We can finally find out what the bad news is.

Until Tuesday, the public knew only that the state had suddenly become a magnet for thousands of antique tanker cars, each filled with 680 barrels of volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

We’ve all seen them: huge black tanks topped with what look like black caps. Their design is a half-century old. The National Transportation Safety Board has been yelling for years about their tendency to split open and explode in crashes.

Federal regulators finally took the risk seriously after one oil train — more or less identical to countless others — exploded in Quebec last year and incinerated 47 human beings.

The new gusher of North Dakota crude has sent a storm surge of tankers across the continent. The rail industry and some states haven’t been eager to tell the public where the trains are going and how many there are.

One particularly specious claim is the information might fall into the hands of terrorists — as if any terrorist with time on his hands couldn’t simply stand by the track in a given locale and count.

The U.S. government last month declared that the train movements aren’t state secrets. Washington state’s emergency preparedness people last week released the details. In Pierce County, for example, BNSF Railway is currently moving 11 to 16 major oil trains through University Place, Tacoma and other communities.

The typical train pulls about 100 cars. Trains that pull fewer than 35 or so aren’t reported. Keep in mind: Shipments are still curving up. In 2011, zero crude was sent to Washington refineries by rail. In 2013, that zero had grown to 29 million barrels.

It’s crucial that the public have this information. Without it, we couldn’t assess either the threat or the preventive measures.

BNSF appears to be trying to get ahead of the problem. (As common carriers, railways are legally obligated to carry oil trains.) It is upgrading its tracks aggressively and is funding training for the state’s first responders.

Railway companies don’t normally deploy cars of their own, but BNSF is buying a small fleet of modern, much-safer oil tankers. Credit where it’s due.

Washington is reacting to the surge faster than the federal government did. This year’s Legislature appropriated nearly $1 million to develop response plans. State agencies are on task.

Unfortunately, lawmakers failed to take one obvious step: imposing a per-barrel fee on rail-borne oil, as California does and as this state already does with the seaborne crude that arrives at our refineries. As a result, taxpayers are footing the bill for much of the emergency preparation.

Heaven knows how many oil barons and CEOs are enriching themselves by rolling these potential bombs through our cities. It’s galling that we have to pay to protect ourselves from them.

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