Oil trains traveling through the Inland Northwest cross Lake Pend Oreille and pass over the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. The rail route also follows portions of the Spokane River, Hangman Creek and the Columbia River.
Though recent news has focused on fiery derailments of oil trains, the potential for spills into the region’s lakes and rivers is also a concern.
Dale Jensen, spills manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, said oil trains are a rapidly emerging issue for the agency, which was set up to respond to spills from pipelines and ships.
Oil-by-rail shipments present a conundrum for Washington because states can’t regulate the railroads. That’s handled at the federal level through the Federal Railroad Administration.
“We regulate ships that bring crude and refined oil into our state,” Jensen said. “We regulate the refineries and oil transfer stations. We regulate the petroleum pipelines throughout the state, but we don’t regulate the railroad.”
The Department of Ecology has requested $650,000 in the governor’s supplemental budget to finance an oil spill risk-reduction package. If approved by the Legislature, the money would be used to hire five people; three would develop geographic response plans, identifying what types of environmental, historic and cultural resources would be at risk from an oil rail spill, and what resources exist to contain those spills.
A fourth hire would work on risks to Washington’s marine waters from an anticipated increase in vessel traffic carrying crude and refined product to other markets. The last position would be a rail expert.
“That individual would have or develop a very good technical understanding of railroads, and will help inform policy decisions focusing on spill prevention and safe practices of moving oil by rail through the state,” Jensen said.
The $650,000 would come from the state’s oil spill prevention fund, which is financed by a 5-cent tax on each barrel of crude oil that enters Washington by vessel.
State officials are concerned that revenue for the oil spill prevention fund will decrease in future years as oil trains outpace vessel shipments of crude. Jensen said the state doesn’t have the authority to tax barrels of crude shipped by rail.