Oil-Train Safety Emerges as Hot Environmental Issue In Olympia

Oil-train safety emerges as hot environmental issue in Olympia

Washington state Democrats and Republicans are pushing different proposals on how to respond to statistics showing that more oil spilled in the United States last year than in the 37 previous years combined.

By Brian M. Rosenthal, February 19, 2014, Seattle Times

The fight over coal trains, billed as the Pacific Northwest’s biggest environment debate in decades, is so 2013. The new hot topic is oil transportation.


Fueled by statistics showing that more oil spilled in the United States last year than in the 37 previous years combined — along with recent oil-train explosions — state lawmakers from both parties and chambers are pushing for quick action.


“I think we all agree that this is an important issue for us to address to protect our citizens,” said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who chairs the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee.


But Republicans and Democrats support differing proposals for how to do so, setting up a potential collision in the divided Legislature.


Both sides want the state Department of Ecology to speed up its disaster planning for derailment of an oil train, an increasingly used method of transport.


But Democrats also want to require energy companies to disclose how much oil they’re sending on trains through the state, and what route it’s traveling. Republicans say that would endanger national security and the competitive nature of the business.


Democrats also want more regulation of maritime transport, an idea Republicans describe as less urgent, given the increasing use of trains.


The disagreement, which comes as the high-stakes coal-export proposals undergo lengthy environmental reviews, is the result of a huge spike in production from North Dakota’s Bakken shales, where the crude oil is considered more combustible.


Companies are increasingly using Washington as a middleman for domestic production, sending crude by rail to terminals here before it is shipped by tanker to California refineries.


Four terminals are already in operation in Washington and Oregon, with another seven planned in the near future, according to a report by the Seattle-based Sightline Institute.


If all open and operate at full capacity, the report estimated that 20 trains would move through the state each day, each stretching up to a mile and carrying more than 28,000 gallons of crude.


Rail shipments of hazardous materials are regulated by the federal government, limiting the state’s ability to act.


But Democrats such as state Rep. Jessyn Farrell say officials at least need to know where the oil is going to help them prepare for a potential spill.


“The public has a right to know how much oil is coming, where it’s coming from and where it’s being transported in our communities,” said Farrell, D-Seattle, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2347.


Frank Holmes, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, said full public disclosure is “dangerous in more ways than one.”


Holmes backed a provision in the Senate version of the bill that would allow for disclosure to disaster-response officials but not the public.


A BNSF Railway spokeswoman said her company already shares detailed information with emergency responders and conducts emergency-response trainings.


Ericksen, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6524, said he suspects the real reason environmentalists want full disclosure is to use it “to shut down the economic organizations that drive our state.”


Kerry McHugh, a spokeswoman for the Washington Environmental Council, said, “It’s possible that when people know more (about oil trains going through the state), they will object to it.”


McHugh also argued for the superiority of the House version of the bill by noting that the Senate version “doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the water side of things.”


The House version would authorize the Ecology Department to eventually develop new rules for tankers entering Grays Harbor and the Columbia River and increase penalties for oil spills involving a barge towed by a tug staffed with just one person.


The Senate would only require the state to host two symposiums to better understand maritime transport issues.


“We need action right now,” Farrell said. “It’s not something for which we need to convene an international symposium.”


But Ericksen said several of Farrell’s ideas are unworkable and overly burdensome.


Besides, he said, “The issue right now is the trains.”


Both bills would require the Ecology Department to update disaster plans to prepare for the increased number of oil trains.


But the Senate version would initially fund some of disaster response with money from the Model Toxics Control Act. Democrats think that account should be protected.


The department is not endorsing either version, spokeswoman Lisa Copeland said. Officials are concerned about tight deadlines that both bills would impose.


The department already has response plans for coastal areas and is working as fast as it can to create plans for inland parts of the state, Copeland said.


The dueling bills have each passed out of their respective committees. The House version has also won approval on the floor, in an early Tuesday morning 57-37 vote.


The full Senate did not pass its version before a key legislative session deadline Tuesday, but senators could move to amend the House version when it arrives.


Ericksen said at a Tuesday news conference that he was hopeful the two sides would reach a compromise before the session ends.


“There’s a lot of shared desire to get this done,” he said.


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