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Feds ask railroads to plan for worst-case oil spills

FILE - This June 6, 2016, file aerial video image taken from a drone shows crumpled oil tankers lying beside the railroad tracks after a fiery June 3 train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore. U.S. safety officials say they've seen slow progress in efforts to upgrade or replace tens of thousands of rupture-prone rail cars used to transport oil and ethanol, despite a string of fiery derailments.
FILE - This June 6, 2016, file aerial video image taken from a drone shows crumpled oil tankers lying beside the railroad tracks after a fiery June 3 train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore. U.S. safety officials say they've seen slow progress in efforts to upgrade or replace tens of thousands of rupture-prone rail cars used to transport oil and ethanol, despite a string of fiery derailments. AP

Railroads that carry crude oil could be required to plan for spills of 300,000 gallons or 15 percent of the oil shipment, whichever is larger, under a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday.

Under the proposed new rules, rail carriers transporting crude oil would be required to plan for the worst-case spill that could be “reasonably expected” in a derailment, and would be required to provide monthly notification to state and tribal emergency responders of the number of rail cars loaded with crude oil expected to pass through an area on a weekly basis.

The information would include the routes the trains are expected to travel and a description of the hazardous materials they will carry. Such trains make regular trips through Whatcom County to two oil refineries at Cherry Point.

At least 27 oil trains have derailed in the U.S. and Canada in the last decade, often leading to fiery explosions and extensive environmental damage. Local authorities have complained in the past that they’ve been unable to obtain information or there have been delays in obtaining information from railroads.

When the new rules will go into effect is uncertain. They must first be published in the Federal Register, the U.S. government’s official bulletin, and then will be open to public comment before they are finalized.

“Incidents involving crude oil can have devastating consequences to local communities and the environment,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “We’ve taken more than 30 actions in the last two years to continue to address risk, and we continue to push the industry to do more to prevent derailments from happening.”

Washington state’s two senators hailed the proposed rules and urged that they be finalized as quickly as possible. In a news release, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, cited a derailment last month near Mosier, Ore., as evidence that more regulation of oil trains is needed. The derailment released 42,000 gallons of crude oil and sparked a massive fire that burned for 14 hours.

“Throughout Washington state, rail lines are adjacent to some of our nation’s most prized natural resources that are economic drivers for local communities and have supported tribal nations since time immemorial. To protect these irreplaceable assets, we must have robust policies in place to respond when accidents do happen,” the senators said in a letter to the Department of Transportation after the Mosier incident.

The Association of American Railroads said in a statement that it is reviewing the 217-page proposal, and that railroads already have response plans in place.

The rule would require railroads to position teams that can respond to an oil train derailment with equipment and manpower within 12 hours. But the department also asks for industry and public comments on whether a maximum six hours to respond would be more appropriate in areas where there is high volume of oil train traffic or that are environmentally sensitive.

Concern growing in Northwest

Concern over the potential for disaster from oil train derailments has grown as the amount of oil shipped by rail has increased in response to more production in North Dakota and elsewhere.

An analysis by Washington state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council last year said a proposal to build the largest oil train terminal in the Pacific Northwest could result in a derailment every two years and an oil spill from a derailment once every 12 years. It found that most fire departments along the oil trains’ route are not prepared for a spill or fire that could accompany a derailment.

In Washington state, the Legislature already passed a rule that will require railroads that haul crude oil to have oil spill contingency plans on file with the state Department of Ecology.

The state rule is expected to be adopted this August and take effect in October.

Washington state also asked railroads to show they had insurance and/or assets enough to pay for a “reasonable” worst-case spill calculated using the maximum speed that the longest oil train travels at and other factors meant to scale down from the largest known oil train derailment, which took place in Quebec in 2013.

In that derailment, a 72-car train loaded with Bakken crude oil rolled downhill, reaching 65 mph before crashing into downtown Lac-Megantic and killing 47 people. Sixty-three cars derailed and about 1.6 million gallons of oil leaked.

However, the federal agency appears to be basing its worst-case scenario only on derailments in the U.S.

The agency used the derailment in Casselton, N.D., in 2013, which released 474,936 gallons of crude oil, and figured in safety improvements that are expected to decrease the maximum spill, asking that a “worst-case discharge be equal to 300,000 gallons,” or about 10 rail cars’ worth.

But that lower figure didn’t seem appropriate for trains longer than 50 tank cars, according to the draft, so the agency has proposed a worst-case discharge be based on 300,000 gallons or 15 percent of the total amount of oil on the largest train, whichever is greater.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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