A trainload of oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota rolled through Spokane last September on its way to the Tesoro refinery at Anacortes. That was the first time crude oil had ever been shipped across Eastern Washington.
But in the 10 months since then, the traffic has increased to one oil train headed west each day, with the likelihood the number will at least triple within the next few years. It could increase tenfold.
While thousands have testified and demonstrated in Washington against the hauling of coal, the rapidly increasing number of trains carrying oil has largely been overlooked by the public. The disastrous derailing and explosion Saturday in Quebec of a runaway train loaded with oil should change that, not because a repeat of that catastrophe is likely, but because Eastern Washington is not ready for a potential crude oil spill.
Almost all of the state’s planning and resources to respond to crude oil spills are deployed in Western Washington because the state’s five refineries are there, as are the waterways over which the state has jurisdiction.
Although refined products have been transported across Eastern Washington for decades – most via pipeline – crude is different. Unlike gasoline or jet fuel, crude does not evaporate with time. It also contains benzene, a carcinogenic gas that can force evacuations and complicate a response by hazardous materials teams.
And unlike pipelines, of which the state of Washington has some regulatory control, railroad regulation is almost wholly reserved to the federal government. The state has no say on what trains carry, what railroads have to report and the design of the cars containing hazardous materials.
Still, a Department of Ecology spokesman says federal, state and local jurisdictions, with the cooperation of the railroads, are gradually assembling the equipment and doing the training that will enable first responders to handle accidents involving crude oil spills. He also notes the good track record the railroads have established preventing accidents and credits railroads for their good record regarding oil and hazardous material spills.
The BNSF Railway says it has not had a fatality attributed to a hazardous materials incident in more than 30 years. According to figures from the Association of American Railroads, hazardous-materials accident rates have fallen by more than 90 percent during the same period, and the industry’s crude oil spill rate is substantially better than that for pipelines.
But BNSF will not discuss the number of oil trains moving through Spokane today (the figures above came from DOE), or potential future traffic, just as it has been cagey about coal train movements. The company projects more than $4 billion in capital expenditures on its vast system this year, but won’t say how much will be invested in Washington.
Railroads have made equipment, including cars, available for training. More exercises are planned in Eastern Washington later this summer.
Bakken oil could be flowing to Washington refineries for decades. The sooner we are ready for a spill, the better.