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Lawmakers compromise on oil trains

By John Stang

Heavy on trains and pipelines, but no Puget Sound oil spill prevention measures. That about sums up a Washington House-Senate compromise on their competing oil transportation safety bills.

The Senate passed the compromise, 46-0, on Friday. Shortly after, the measure got a resounding 95-1 Yes from the House.

“It’s an above-average bill,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, just before the Senate vote. ”It’s three-quarters of a good bill.”

The legislation covers oil trains and pipelines, and addresses some other oil-transportation safety matters, such as spill-related emergency training and responses and providing information about oil train cargoes and schedules to the public and to emergency response agencies. The new bill also imposes a temporary, three-year oil-tax hike (from the current 4 cents per 42-gallon barrel to 5 cents).

House Democrats had originally pushed for a per-barrel tax of 8 cents, plus some oil spill prevention measures for tanker ships plying Puget Sound — positions they ultimately conceded. Senate Republicans gave ground too, on their original opposition to any oil tax increase at all, and on their no-pipelines stance. Both sides had pushed for improved training and planning by state and local emergency agencies.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle and author of the House bill, said the compromise was made to get some oil train and pipeline legislation on the books. Democrats hope to tackle Puget Sound-related oil-spill-prevention measures in the 2016 session.

Under the new legislation, railroads will have to provide advance notification to emergency agencies about train routes, about the volumes of oil being transported and about where oil trains traveling to western Washington’s five refineries originated. The public will be updated periodically via a website that provides a less detailed look at the oil volumes and origin of oil trains. In order to protect proprietary oil company information, the public data will not be broken down by individual trains and dates.

A similar aggregate rundown on pipelines will be made public twice a year so that the public and state will have information on which to base future regulatory actions.

The bill also requires railroads to report on whether they are financially capable of effectively responding to worst-case accident scenarios. The state will use those financial disclosures to determine whether or not to take more actions vis a vis the railroads’ financial obligations in the event of emergencies.

Environmentalists and environmentally-minded lawmakers were lukewarm about the legislation. “It isn’t a matter of if, it is a matter of when a spill or explosion will happen,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “I am pleased we were able to finally pass meaningful legislation that will help protect our first responders and citizens. It’s unfortunate we could not ensure oil and railroad companies — not taxpayers — are held financially responsible for spill prevention and cleanup.”

“While this bill contains some important steps forward in terms of transparency and public disclosure, it leaves huge holes in the safety net needed to protect our communities and waterways from risks we face today,” said Becky Kelley, president of Washington Environmental Council, in a press release.

No doubt the issue of oil train safety and how to ensure it will be back.


Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

Oil train safety bill prompts debate about public notifications

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

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.