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Sen. Cantwell hears from Whatcom, Skagit officials on oil train safety

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The Bellingham Herald

As the White House continued to review proposed rule changes for trains hauling crude oil through the country, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell spent the last week hearing about the specific rail safety concerns of Washington state communities.

During Cantwell’s fifth and final stop Thursday, April 9, emergency responders and government officials from Skagit, Whatcom and Snohomish counties told her that many small communities need more training, resources, and information from the railroads to fully prepare for the event of an oil train derailment.

Fire and police officials described being delayed by trains at rail crossings while responding to emergencies, and expressed concerns about short staffing that prohibits fire departments from sending more employees to free BNSF training in Colorado.

“You are sitting at ground zero right here,” said Mount Vernon Fire Chief Roy Hari, who pointed out the proximity of four schools and the Skagit River. “Big train, small fire departments. I think I speak for every fire chief here when I say we need the equipment to handle it.”

Partway through the hourlong meeting at Skagit Transportation Center, an oil train with its horn blasting rolled down the tracks less than 100 feet outside the room.

Even though local firefighters have received the free training, Hari said that without stockpiles of foam and other equipment nearby, small communities wouldn’t be better off.

Kent Catlin, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, echoed Hari’s concerns about equipment, and recommended requiring railroads to place equipment at specific intervals along the tracks so responders don’t need to wait for BNSF or other railroad personnel to reach the scene, which sometimes could take hours.

Frustrated with the federal Department of Transportation rule-making process for high-hazard flammable trains, the final results of which are set to be released next month, Cantwell introduced legislation on March 25 that would immediately ban the least-sturdy tank cars from being used to ship crude oil.

The Washington state Democrat’s legislation also would regulate the volatility of crude oil in rail cars, and require railroads to provide more information to state and local emergency officials, as well as require that they draft comprehensive oil-spill response plans.

“We would get an an expedited process from the DOT and the hazardous materials agency if we could, just get them to do it right away,” Cantwell said of the rule-making process. “We’re trying to build momentum on them, getting them to act immediately. We don’t have to pass a bill to do that. If they don’t, yes, we’ll look at every avenue.”

Cantwell’s announcement came after four crude oil trains derailed in a three-week span in February and March. The fiery incidents, which happened in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario, renewed attention on the relatively recent spike in oil being moved by rail across North America.

“I think even first responders went, ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t understand this,’” Cantwell said. “These incidents show it doesn’t take a lot for something to happen.”

The increase in crude-by-rail has been driven by expanding production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Washington state first saw crude-by-rail. By 2013, rail accounted for 8.4 percent of crude shipments, pipelines had 24.2 percent, and marine vessels hauled 67.4 percent, according to a study of oil transportation completed by the state Department of Ecology. Compare that to a decade earlier, when vessels carried 91 percent of crude oil into the state, and pipelines moved the rest.

Four refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties — Phillips 66 and BP Cherry Point west of Ferndale, and Shell and Tesoro in Anacortes — handle about 94 percent of the state’s oil refining on any given day, according to Ecology.

BP Cherry Point can get one oil train per day, while Phillips 66 can get one every other day. Between the two refineries, Whatcom County has more than half of the state’s capacity to process oil.

One of the things Cantwell hopes to address with her legislation that is not part of the DOT rule-making process is the specific volatility or vapor pressure of crude oil being shipped in the country.

“It looked as if a year ago, people tried to address it, then they just punted it to the state of North Dakota,” Cantwell said. “It didn’t seem like an accurate assessment to me. I think the federal government should determine if this is hazardous, and what kind of requirements should be put on its shipment.”

Starting April 1, North Dakota required all oil-by-rail shipments from the Bakken formation to be treated to maintain a vapor pressure of less than 13.7 pounds per square inch before they are loaded into trains.

“If we can stop the volatility before it ever leaves the oil fields, that is the number one best thing that could happen,” said Hari, the Mount Vernon fire chief. “It’s pretty simple: Reduce the volatility, make the cars strong, and give us the equipment we need when something happens.”

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said it was good to address the volatility of Bakken crude, but she wanted to make sure the standards for tank cars hauling other hazardous materials are also evaluated.

“We also have natural gas, we also have chlorine, we have a lot of very volatile products that go through our community, and so when we talk about safe rail cars, we’d like to make sure they’re safe for everything, not just for oil,” Linville said.

BNSF, the largest rail company operating in Washington, is in favor of stricter tank car standards, said company spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.

“We have long pressed for stronger tank car standards as every commodity needs to be in the right car,” Wallace wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald. “We continue to believe that a next-generation tank car or an unmodified CPC-1232 tank car that is appropriately retrofitted is necessary to reduce the risk in the transportation of shale crude oil.”

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