BNSF won’t face possible fine on oil spill reporting until January

It likely will be January 2016 before it is decided if BNSF Railway should face fines for what state rail regulators said was improper reporting of crude oil and other hazardous materials spills.

BNSF, the largest railroad operating in Washington, met with state Utilities and Transportation Commission representatives Monday, May 18, to schedule a hearing related to more than a dozen hazardous materials spills across the state between Nov. 1, 2014, and Feb. 24, 2015.

The parties asked to meet again at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 19, 2016, at the commission’s hearing room in Olympia, in order to accommodate summer vacations and ensure there is enough time to complete testimony or come up with a settlement by this fall, said UTC spokeswoman Amanda Maxwell.

During the hearing, a judge could decide if the UTC staff was right in recommending up to $700,000 in fines against the railroad company for allegedly failing to properly report the spills to a state hotline within the required half hour of learning about them.

A March 19 UTC report outlines 700 violations of the reporting requirement related to spills (every day an incident goes unreported counts as a separate violation, per state law). The alleged violations stem from 14 releases of hazardous materials that the state says were not properly called in to a state hotline.

BNSF has claimed that the rail regulators were mostly wrong in their accusations and released an email newsletter March 30 to “set the record straight.”

In some cases, BNSF did call the hotline, but not within 30 minutes, according to the UTC report. In other cases, the report states BNSF never called the hotline and only submitted a copy of a federal report required within a month of any hazardous material spill.

The case that could carry the most weight, with potentially 111 violations, involved a tank car that leaked 1,611 gallons of crude oil. On Nov. 5, crews at BP Cherry Point refinery found crude oil had leaked onto the sides and wheels of the tank car, but the UTC didn’t find out about it until Dec. 3, when it got a copy of the report BNSF sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Railroads have 30 days to file that type of report.

BNSF said the leak was “discovered off BNSF property” and the car was not in transit, nor was it in the company’s custody at the time.

BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace also has said the company did report at least six of the other incidents to the hotline. Those six incidents from Dec. 7, 8 and 9, make up 465 of the alleged 700 violations.

The commission could opt to fine the company $1,000 per violation of the reporting law, but no fine has been issued yet. The commission would set a final penalty after the January hearing.