Officials say oil train leaked as it crossed Washington state

A train loaded with Bakken crude oil needed to have more than a dozen leaking tank cars removed at three separate stops as it traveled through Idaho and crossed Washington state in mid-January.

The leaking train, which was headed from North Dakota’s Bakken region to the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes on Jan. 12, was detected just two months after an oil-stained rail tank car was discovered at BP Cherry Point.

Loaded with roughly 100 cars of crude oil, the train was “found to have a very small amount of oil leaking from the top of a total of 14 cars,” according to BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace. BNSF reported that a total volume of less than 25 gallons of oil from all 14 cars was found only on the tops and sides of tank cars, and no oil was found on the ground.

“The train crew first noticed oil on the side of one tank car in Hauser, Idaho,” Wallace wrote in an emailed response to The Bellingham Herald. “Following an inspection of the train, the tank car was removed from service and no other tank cars appeared to be impacted.”

After leaving Hauser, a small town just across the state line from Spokane, the train continued along BNSF lines, following the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash. There, seven more tank cars were found to have slow leaks from valves on top of the cars, which were inspected by both BNSF and the Federal Railroad Administration, Wallace wrote. Those cars were removed from the train.

The train was inspected again in Auburn, Wash., where another six cars were found to have leaking top valves and were pulled off the train, Wallace wrote.

Washington state officials at the Utilities and Transportation Commission were alerted to the leaking train after cars had already been removed. The FRA, a UTC partner agency, asked the state’s lone federally certified hazardous materials inspector to take a look, according to testimony that UTC Chairman David Danner gave to a legislative committee Feb. 3.

The incident is currently under investigation, and official details may not be available to the public for about a month, said Jason Lewis, UTC transportation policy adviser.

Neither the UTC or BNSF would comment on what might have caused the leaks, leaving that to be revealed by the investigation.

The cars involved were higher-standard CPC-1232 cars, which some oil companies have started using after several fiery derailments caused concerns about older DOT-111 rail cars, which have been found more likely to puncture or burst. The 1232 cars have thicker shells, head shields and improved fittings on top the car. All Bakken crude rolling through Washington is being transported in the newer cars, according to railroad officials.

BNSF regularly inspects all 32,500 miles of its tracks, Wallace said. Most key routes are inspected four times per week, more than federally required.

“If there’s a car leaking, they will do a visual on-site, on the tracks, and if it needs to, beyond that as well,” Wallace said.

Oil safety in the Legislature

As dueling oil safety bills are making their way through the Washington State Legislature, UTC Chair Danner told legislators the incident highlights the commission’s glaring need for more rail inspectors. In this case, the UTC inspection was delayed as the hazardous materials inspector had to travel from Eastern Washington across the state to get to the train.

“I can’t tell you the number of gallons that came out, but it was significant,” Danner told the House Environment Committee. “It was basically leaking all the time the train was traveling through the state.”

The commission, which currently has only four FRA-certified inspectors for the state, has requested more funding as lawmakers work on the next biennial budget.

The oil safety bill before the House committee on Tuesday, HB 1449, was introduced at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee. Among the measures it would implement is an increase in the oil spill response tax, currently levied on crude oil transported in the state by marine vessels.

The bill would expand the tax so it is also levied on crude oil transported by pipeline and rail car in the state, and increase the portion that pays for spill prevention from four cents to 10 cents per barrel. That increase would help in part to pay for improvements like new inspectors for the UTC.

Oil and railroad company representatives at the hearing said they would support levying the tax on crude by rail, as it would make up for the amount of money lost by transporting crude on trains instead of ships. However, they expressed their concern with the increase in the tax.

“WSPA supports the expansion of the barrel tax to include crude oil transported by rail. We support the robust spills program at (the Department of) Ecology,” Frank Holmes, representative for the Western States Petroleum Association, testified before the committee. “WSPA opposes the expansion of the barrel tax to include product in pipelines. WSPA is also opposed to the 150 percent increase in the tax rate from 4 cents to 10 cents.”

Another oil safety bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is making its way through the Senate. That bill, SB 5057, also would extend the barrel tax to oil-by-rail, but not to pipeline, and does not include the increased tax rate.

Gap in reporting

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, primary sponsor of the House bill, also testified at the Feb. 3 hearing, saying there are significant gaps in state oil regulations.

“Some of you may have seen an article by McClatchy recently about a very significant gap,” Farrell said, referring to a leaking oil car that was found once the train had reached its destination, BP Cherry Point refinery, Nov. 5. “There was a leak of about 1,600 gallons of oil and it wasn’t for a month that key agencies got information about this.”

In that case, Federal Railroad Administration inspectors found oil stains on the sides and wheels of a tank car that was being unloaded at the refinery. An inspection revealed an open valve and a missing plug.

The incident was not initially reported to any local or state officials, though there are state and federal hotlines for reporting spills. The state requires any spill of hazardous materials to be reported within 30 minutes to a 24-hour hotline.

The Department of Ecology, which responds to inland oil spills, the U.S. Coast Guard, which responds to spills along navigable waterways, and the Whatcom County Unified Emergency Coordination Center all first learned of the November incident when a McClatchy reporter contacted them for information on Jan. 21.

Federal and state regulators are also investigating that case.

The Jan. 12 incident was reported to the state’s hotline on Jan. 23, said Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Division.

When asked why the incident was reported more than a week later, Wallace replied that BNSF staff members thought they were following proper protocols, and amended their Washington reporting policy following discussions with the UTC in January.

“We take these matters very seriously, and will continue to be vigilant in inspections, working closely with our customers and the FRA,” Wallace wrote.

In response to the apparent gap in protocols, the UTC is sending letters to all railroad companies that travel through the state to remind them the commission requires reports of any release of hazardous materials “within 30 minutes of learning of the event” (emphasis as it appears in the UTC letter, which McClatchy obtained in a public records request).

McClatchy reporter Curtis Tate contributed to this report.