Civic Agenda: Bellingham working to improve safety of crude oil rail shipping

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 13, 2014 

Public safety is the No. 1 priority for me and for our city government, and in the past year, rail safety has come to the forefront as a major concern in our community and in cities on rail lines across the country.

Since 2008, we have more than 40 times the number of trains hauling crude oil nationwide. Major accidents in the United States and Canada have raised the alarm about the increased risks to communities along those rail lines.

Certainly this is a major concern to me and to the residents in our community, and I've been working with our state and federal elected officials to find a long-term solution. In Bellingham, the railroad passes near the homes of thousands of residents and near numerous businesses, recreation sites, transportation centers and the city's wastewater treatment plant. We have a clear and legitimate concern about how the increase in crude oil cars could negatively affect our community on several levels. According to the state, Bellingham has five to six crude oil trains currently coming through town daily, and with an expected increase of as many as two 100-car unit trains traveling to regional refineries daily; this is a topic that needs to be addressed right now.

In the past month, we've had increased news and actions on the subject as well. Last month's news from the National Transportation Safety Board was cause for increased concern. In a letter to Oregon's Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart observed that "accidents involving crude oil or flammable liquids of any kind, especially when these liquids are transported in large volumes such as in unit trains or in blocks of tank cars, can have disastrous consequences, including devastating environmental contamination."

Governor Jay Inslee outlined a plan in early June to deal with the growing risks of the transportation of crude oil, both by rail and by water, that create new safety and environmental risks for the entire state. Transport by rail of crude oil from the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota has increased, as has transportation of Canadian crude oil to British Columbia ports, and much of this is transported through Washington State. The governor's plan, which I support, is to:

- Assess the risk along the state's rail lines,

- Review state and federal laws and identify regulatory gaps,

- Assess the relative risk of Bakken crude with respect to other forms of crude oil,

- Identify information gaps that hinder improvements in public safety and spill prevention and response,

- Develop spill response plans for impacted counties,

- Identify potential actions that can be coordinated with neighboring states and British Columbia, and

- Identify, prioritize and estimates costs for state actions that will improve public safety and spill prevention and response, including rail improvements.

I am also representing our community through my appointment to the Association of Washington Cities Ad Hoc Freight Rail Committee. I am serving with 26 mayors and city council members across the state to address a number of city concerns relating to rail safety, mobility and service, and the committee will coordinate with affected cities, Washington's congressional delegation, state, federal and local agencies, and other stakeholders to develop a recommendation.

WORKING WITH OTHERS

The City of Bellingham has also been taking action to urge state and federal lawmakers to address this critical issue. Earlier this year, I worked with the Bellingham City Council to pass a resolution supporting an increase in safety standards for rail tank cars that transport oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids through Bellingham. The resolution calls on the federal U. S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to adopt in 2014 rules requiring safety retrofitting of existing rail cars.

The city has several high priority needs in regards to rail safety. We need to prevent catastrophic rail accidents such as those that have happened in the United States and Canada in the past year, including tanker car safety and rail improvements. We need to make sure we have adequate emergency response in place to react to rail accidents that happen in Bellingham. And we need to make sure there's a plan in place to recover clean-up costs, environmental remediation costs, medical expenses and any damages or claims that are not covered by the responsible party.

Public safety is a concern for everyone working on this issue, and we all have a common goal to protect the public. This will take an effort from all parties, including the railroad industry, which has been also calling for stricter regulations. The railroads have urged federal regulators to toughen existing standards for new tank cars and require that existing tank cars be retrofitted with advanced safety-enhancing technology or phased out entirely.

The city has recently invested in and plans to continue to invest substantially in restoration of nearshore and shoreline habitats and revitalize the old Georgia-Pacific site, and both would be adversely affected by oil spills, train accidents and increased rail traffic.

I support the rapid implementation of increased safety standards for rail-tank cars, and I encourage efforts of the oil industry to retrofit or replace rail-tank cars as soon as possible. The City Council and I call upon the federal department of transportation to adopt more stringent requirements for rail cars and to support local governments in appropriating enhanced emergency response planning.

I look forward to continuing to work with our state, federal and local representatives to manage these emerging and heightened risks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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