The state has approved its first plan for responding to oil spills along more than 1,300 miles of tracks owned by BNSF Railway, including lines that run directly through Bellingham to two refineries at Cherry Point.
Last year, railroad companies moved about two billion gallons of crude oil through the state, according to the Washington Department of Ecology.
In the first quarter of this year alone, an estimated 10,282 oil tank cars will move through Whatcom County, traveling along Bellingham Bay and crossing the Nooksack River and carrying about half the crude that comes to the state by rail.
Future oil-by-rail traffic may increase to 17 billion gallons by 2035, according to a study by Ecology.
“This plan is a significant step forward for the protection of Washington’s communities and environment,” said Dale Jensen, Ecology’s spills prevention manager, in a news release. “Oil by rail has expanded significantly in recent years, and it’s imperative railroad companies are prepared to work with the state to respond to a spill in a rapid, aggressive, and well-coordinated manner.”
BNSF’s emergency plan requires year-round training for local and tribal first responders, plans to respond to oiled wildlife, and developing oil-response drills, according to Ecology.
The state previously required oil spill contingency plans only for companies moving oil by ships, pipelines, and for oil-handling facilities such as refineries. That changed in 2015 when the state Legislature passed the Oil Transportation Safety Act, which was created in response to an increase in oil train traffic – and oil spill disasters.
Between 2007 and 2016, the largest BNSF oil spill in Washington was 12,000 gallons, according to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data.
On June 3, 2016, an oil train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and caught fire in Mosier, Ore., spilling an estimated 42,000 gallons, some of which reached the Columbia River. It was among the most recent in a string of fiery accidents in the U.S. and Canada.
Washington and California are the only two West Coast states to require oil spill contingency plans for railroad operators. The state plan is currently working on contingency plans with eight railroad companies that transport oil in Washington.