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Oil train safety bill prompts debate about public notifications

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

February 4, 2015 - 9:44 am

By John Stang

Should the public know when oil trains come through and what type of oil they are carrying?

That question was debated Tuesday at a Washington House Environment  Committee hearing on an oil train safety bill introduced by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D- Seattle.

The Western States Petroleum Association, two railroads and at least one committee member believe the answer on whether to put out public information about the shipments is “no.”  Farrell, King County, the city of Vancouver and some environmental groups say “yes.”

Farrell’s bill covers a long list of oil transportation safety matters – including spill-related emergency training and responses, tugboat regulations regarding oil shipping in Washington’s waters, information to be provided to emergency agencies, and an oil tax hike from four cents to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel.

But the public notification issue sparked the most debate Tuesday in a packed Olympia hearing room.

Representatives from the petroleum association plus the BNSF and Union Pacific railroad supported boosting emergency agencies’ capabilities to deal with oil train spills and fires. But they deferred questions to local agencies on whether those departments know whether an oil train is moving through their area that specific day. Having the correct equipment and training is more important than knowing when the oil trains pass through, said Johan Hellman, representing BNSF.

Also, emergency responders can know the petro-chemical makeup of the oil in the upcoming trains, if they sign confidentiality agreements not to disclose that information to the public. Different types of oil have different levels of volatility with different response measures required. Already, a manifest of the oil’s volumes and contents is on each train, and responders can also get that information during an emergency via a toll-free phone number, said Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Holmes said oil companies are concerned about giving information to competitors and potentially creating terror threats if the oil train timetables and exact contents are made public. Environment Committee member Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, agreed. “If some of the information is made public, I think it could jeopardize national security,” he said.

However, Candace Mumm, a resident of Spokane, said: “Disclosure is very important to us. … It’s important for responders to know what’s there.” Darcy Nonemacher of the Washington Environment Council suggested that a government web site could be set up that contains needed information, but works around the proprietary issues.

“We need to know what’s moving by rail through our city,” said Vancouver City Council member Bart Hansen. Vancouver has a new oil terminal in the works. Currently, Vancouver averages 18 oil trains a week, but expects that to increase to eight to 12 oil trains a day when the new oil terminal opens, he said. King County emergency official Barnaby Dow said eight to 12 oil trains are currently going through the county each week.

Geoff Simpson, representing the Washington State Council of Firefighters, also argued for advance notification of oil trains, suggesting that the state military emergency services headquarters could be the clearing house.

In 2013 and 2014, the United States had four oil train accidents that produced fires — one in North Dakota, one in West Virginia and two in New England. Closer to home, three 29,200-gallon oil cars on a slow-moving train derailed without any spills or fire beneath Seattle’s Magnolia Bridge in July. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

Lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature are trying to figure out the best ways to respond to a booming increase in the shipping of crude oil by rail in Washington from almost none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013. A state report speculated that volume could reach 2.87 billion gallons for 2015.

The Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee has recommended passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R- Ferndale. His bill, which passed on a 5-to-4 party line vote, is now awaiting action by the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

Ericksen’s bill has no public disclosure requirements, and, unlike Farrell’s, it addresses only oil transportation by rail. Both bills increase per-barrel oil taxes to cover emergency response and planning expenses. Farrell’s bill would impose charges on both crude and refined oil, while Ericksen’s addresses only crude oil. But a split over the public notification provisions was at the heart of a House-Senate stalemate last year, and that could be a key issue again as lawmakers attempt to respond to the growing oil train traffic.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

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