Opinion

The oil tank cars are coming | JERRY CORNFIELD

By Jerry Cornfield
Political Columnist

By the end of next week, Washington will learn how often tank cars of oil siphoned from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale are getting shipped by rail through Washington state.

An emergency order from the U.S. Transportation Department requires railroads to tell the state how many trains carrying this highly flammable varietal of black gold are expected to travel through Washington each week, and on which routes.

Railroads are not required to reveal exactly what days and times the trains are coming or how much crude oil is getting transported.

Community leaders, emergency responders and some politicians say that’s the information they really need to be prepared for a derailment, spill or other type of accident.

They’re aware of oil train derailments in Virginia in April, in Alabama in November, and in Quebec last July, where 47 people died.

They know the chances of an accident are increasing as rail shipments of all types of crude oil multiply in Washington. The state Department of Ecology estimates it went from zero barrels in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels — roughly 714 million gallons — in 2013.

But rather than criticize the order as inadequate, these leaders cite the federal action as a step forward.

“We’re all kind of worried about (Bakken crude) because it is much more flammable than regular crude oil. We have been asking for more information,” said Brad Reading, assistant chief of Snohomish County Fire District 1.

The rules, which kick in June 6 and apply to all 50 states, cover only shipments of at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude. That sounds like a lot, except when you consider that one tank car holds about 30,000 gallons of crude oil, and oil trains commonly have 100 or more cars hitched together.

Railroads must give the State Emergency Response Commission  an estimate of how many trains will run through each county each week. The commission will notify the counties.

After railroads provide the information next week, they won’t need to contact the state again unless the number of trains carrying Bakken oil increases or decreases by 25 percent or more.

Refiners and railroads aren’t enamored with the notification directive. They worry it could increase the risk of sabotage and encourage daring activists to try to block trains through protests.

They’d prefer not to see the information publicized. State emergency management officials plan to post it online but on Tuesday were checking to find out if they are barred from doing so.

And the federal rules don’t deal with the safety of the rail cars in which the Bakken is shipped. That’s a separate conversation going on in Washington, D.C., where the Obama Administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are likely to impose tougher standards for rail car construction.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the state Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications committee, said the new notification rule is “a piece of the puzzle” but tank-car safety is critically important and needs addressing sooner than later.

He’s planning to hold a public hearing on oil trains June 17 in Spokane.

“State lawmakers must continue to pressure the federal government to take stronger action,” he said when the order came out May 7. “It is what communities throughout Washington deserve and what we didn’t get from our federal leaders today.”

 

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield can be contacted at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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