Washington Fire Chiefs seek BNSF info for disaster planning

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013.
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013. AP

Following a series of fiery crude oil train derailments in Canada and the U.S., emergency planners in Washington state went to work updating a regional hazmat plan.

“As trains started exploding all over the U.S., it caught our attention,” said Wayne Senter, executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs, a nonprofit association. “So we dusted off our regional hazmat plan and pushed it forward. It needs to be refreshed, it needs to be updated.”

But the planners quickly hit a wall when trying to find out specific information about what and how much is being shipped by rail. After struggling with fact-finding, the chiefs sent a letter to BNSF Railway asking for the information they needed for their plan, which was last updated in 2006. Washington state got its first crude-by-rail shipment in 2012.

They asked for information in four specific areas:

•  The railroad’s worst-case scenarios for a crude oil train derailment in urban and sensitive environmental areas.

•  Evidence of how much catastrophic insurance coverage the railroad has.

•  Copies of the railroad’s comprehensive emergency response plans.

•  Analyses of how they determine the safest routes for carrying hazardous materials such as crude oil, ethanol, chlorine and ammonia.

“Normally we would be able to assess the hazard through right-to-know and other public documents; however, your industry has sought and gained exemptions to these sunshine laws,” the March 6 letter to BNSF states. “This exemption does not mean that your industry is exempt from taking reasonable steps to ensure catastrophic incidents do not occur.”

In response, BNSF employees met with Senter and a handful of others involved in emergency management and firefighting on Thursday afternoon, April 30, at the fire chiefs office in Olympia. The chiefs got answers to some of their questions, but not everything.

“I think both sides learned a little bit about the other group’s point of view,” Senter said Thursday afternoon. “I was pretty positive by the end of the meeting the information we asked for in our letter was either available or will soon be available either directly or indirectly. ... They gave me a method on how to get the information, including some things we weren’t aware of, or I wasn’t aware of, like tools (on their website) for first responders.”

In the two hours the parties met, there wasn’t enough time to get into detail, Senter said, but they did start discussions on the four points of the letter, including the specifics of a worst-case scenario.

“They shared what that was from their point of view,” Senter said. “They talked about 150,000 gallons, which is (about) five cars.”

Specifically, that 150,000-gallon worst-case scenario was mentioned in reference to a derailment with spill into the water in Washington state, without any of the product catching on fire, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said.

“The worst-case spill we explained (Thursday) was based on DOT emergency planning regulations for spills to water,” Melonas said. “For spills to water, we stated we thought 150,000 gallons is the worst-case scenario, as every derailed or damaged car will not fully release its contents.”

In at least three of four major crude oil train derailments in February and March, more than 20 of roughly 100 cars capable of holding up to 30,000 gallons each derailed, according to news reports. On July 5, 2013, a crude oil train derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and releasing about 1.6 million gallons of crude oil.

More information about the railroad’s worst-case scenario planning was not immediately available Friday, but BNSF said it would follow up with The Bellingham Herald after the weekend.

The two also discussed oil train safety legislation recently passed by Washington state lawmakers, Senter said. The new rule will require facilities receiving crude oil by rail to notify the state seven days in advance of every transfer. That notification, which should include the route, volume, and other facts about each shipment, is supposed to be accessible to the state emergency management division, and county, city, tribal, port and local government emergency agencies that request it.

“We talked about how some of this information is available to agencies — I have the ability or a fire chief has the ability to get that information, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that needs to be on a piece of paper they hand to me,” Senter said.

Per the state’s new rule, the general public will be able to see the advance notification information as compiled on a quarterly basis by the Department of Ecology.

“If it were up to me, I believe that the public has the right to know what’s coming through their neighborhoods and what’s around the populated areas they visit,” Senter said when asked if he thought the general public should have the right to know that information, too.

Overall, Senter said he thought the meeting went well.

“I think the biggest takeaway was their willingness to at least sit down and talk about the issue,” Senter said. “If we don’t get that, we don’t get anywhere.”

Melonas also said the meeting was productive.

“We certainly want to continue with open lines of communication with this issue,” Melonas said. “We discussed basically everything from track investments to detection, to internal and external training, to opposition on tank cars, as well as a number of other subjects.

“We want to continue enhancing communication, as we’d all work together in a worst-case scenario,” Melonas said.

The chiefs and BNSF plan to meet again to continue the discussion started on Thursday, Senter said.