Oil trains report is packed with recommendations for reducing public risks

Better training and equipment for first responders and better advance notice of crude oil shipments are among the recommendations tucked into a new 500-page state report that takes a comprehensive look at the risks of hauling crude oil by rail and pipeline in Washington state.

The Department of Ecology’s report estimates that 12.7 billion gallons of oil were moved through the state by rail in 2013 alone and says 19 trains of roughly 100 tank cars each are passing through the state each week today. It predicts that traffic could mushroom to 137 weekly trains by 2020 if all proposed oil terminals and refinery expansion projects are permitted and utilized.

The report’s 43 recommendations for the Legislature do not carry an overall price tag.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who issued an executive order to speed up the study that the Legislature authorized in March, is likely to propose legislation. The Democrat has also favored quicker action by the federal government, which regulates railroads, to improve safety standards for tanker cars.

“We are definitely going to look at what we could do in the state and will be looking at these recommendations carefully as we figure out our entire legislative package for next year,” Inslee spokesman David Postman said.

A top finding in the report is a lack of preparation for major incidents by local first responders. The state Military Department surveyed fire districts across the state and 59 percent said they were “not sufficiently trained nor (did they) have the resources to respond to a train derailment accompanied by a fire,” the report says.

The recommendations include changes to the regulatory fee structure for railroads so that the state Utilities and Transportation Commission can raise about $2.5 million to add inspectors and increase their pay, making salaries more competitive with federal agencies that often hire away state staffers.

Another suggestion is to require railroads and pipelines to submit advance notice to state officials of oil shipments that identify both the volume and characteristics of the oil being shipped. Lawmakers balked a year ago at requiring major new disclosure of shipments by oil refineries and shipping companies, although a disclosure bill did clear the Democrat-led House.

Ultimately, the divided Legislature agreed to pay for the more thorough study of the problem, which included work by Ecology and the other state agencies aided by a consulting team.

Other recommendations are for permanent funding to support three Ecology response-plan staffers; funds to expand vessel-traffic risk assessments on the Columbia River, in Grays Harbor and in Puget Sound; funds to bolster supplies of equipment and training for local fire departments; permission for first-class cities to opt into the UTC’s rail-crossing inspection program; and funds for what it called “diagnostic” reviews by the UTC of high-risk crossings.

The report says the UTC found a number of rail crossings — out of nearly 350 reviewed — were at “higher risk of derailment” and need further evaluation. The report specifically mentions the need for more review of crossings in Everett, Spokane and Bellingham that are under city jurisdiction, and 10 others near Spokane, Pasco, Mesa, White Salmon, Burlington and Ferndale.

A spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, which is the largest hauler of oil in the state, said the company is “reviewing the report and its recommendations.”

“Running a safe operation is at the heart at everything we do, and BNSF has long been committed to rail safety through our efforts to prevent accidents from ever happening in the first place through our record investment in our infrastructure, our robust inspection program and the safety culture of our employees. We invested $5 billion in our system this year and will spend $6 billion next year,” spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said.

“While accidents are rare, we are prepared for effective response with pre-positioned emergency equipment and emergency responders on call across our system in Washington. We also train over 3,500 first responders on hazmat response every year. That includes 800 first responders this year in (Washington),” Wallace added.