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Crude oil legislation clears Washington House committee

OLYMPIA – The Legislature took tentative steps Tuesday to demand more information and develop stricter controls on crude oil moving through the state by rail and barge.

But unlike the Spokane City Council, which Monday night voted unanimously to request more controls on the growing number of oil shipments, the Legislature is clearly split on how much information to request and how quickly to develop new regulations.

The House Environment Committee approved, on a partisan vote, a proposal that would order state agencies to begin developing new, tougher regulations for the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials that move through the state on trains, or move by barge on the Columbia River and into Gray’s Harbor.

“The goal of the bill is to take action this year,” said Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, sponsor of the bill that has 28 co-sponsors. It would also give the public and local agencies information on what is moving through their communities, she added.

Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, tried to revise the proposal to have the state Ecology Department gather the information and report in December to the Legislature but stop short of adopting any new rules. She also offered an amendment to tighten some of the rules on what information is revealed, and when, that she said would address some concerns about confidentiality. Both failed on party-line votes.

“The public really has a right to know what’s happening in our communities with respect to oil transports,” Farrell said before her proposal passed out of the committee, again on a party-line vote.

Later in the day, the Senate Energy and Environment Committee considered a separate bill which called for studies and reports, but no new regulations before the Legislature meets next year. It would, however, set aside $5 million to help local communities buy the kind of emergency equipment they might need to handle spills.

Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref was among those telling committee members the bill doesn’t do enough to give communities information about what they might face from a spill. They preferred a different proposal, backed by minority Democrats, which hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

“Spokane is very vulnerable to accidents,” Waldref said.

But giving too much information about when and where shipments will be traveling could also put the public at risk, and maintaining some confidentiality is important, said Committee Chairman Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

The key, Waldref said, is making sure first responders know what is on the trains.

Ericksen, the sponsor of the bill, said it still needs work before the committee will be asked whether to send it to the full Senate for a vote.

But the panel did support a bipartisan resolution to Congress asking for strict new federal standards on new tankers that haul crude oil and other hazardous materials, and a requirement that existing tankers be brought up to those standards or retired.