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Editorial: Spokane railroads need better oil disaster prevention

This afternoon, the House Environment Committee will hold a hearing on House Bill 2347, “Enhancing the safety of the transportation of oil.”

Recent railroad tank car explosions are abundant proof the railroad and oil industries cannot assure track-side communities they operate with adequate safety, or have the resources to respond when a disaster occurs. Although focused primarily on maritime hazards, HB 2347 does direct the state Office of Financial Management to study the extent and projected increase in railroad oil shipments across the state, and whether the communities at risk should a tank car explode are prepared.

The report would be due Oct. 15.

This is the minimum the state should do. Federal law largely pre-empts state interference with interstate railroads, but that is no excuse for passivity. Even in North Dakota, source of the explosive Bakken crude, Democratic and Republic officials are suggesting pell-mell drilling activity has gotten ahead of the infrastructure — mostly railroad — needed to get the oil to the nation’s refineries.

To start with, the available rail cars were designed for less volatile crude oil. Even if one failed, the result was likely to be a large pool of goo, not a lake of fire.

The Federal Railroad Administration is starting to address that problem. But the oil industry, which owns the tankers, and the railroads are already trying to hand blame for inadequate safety to each other. Replacing or upgrading the railcars might cost $1 billion. Modifying train operations, like slowing them down in urban areas, will have a cost, too.

Not only are those figures tiny compared with the resources of those two industries, they are modest compared with the costs of disaster recovery. Just remediating the soil and waterways in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, might cost $200 million. Canada’s worst railroad disaster destroyed that small community’s downtown last July, and killed 47. What’s the damage estimate for that?

At the local level, the Spokane City Council is considering a resolution calling for assurances that the risk to the city of increased oil shipments by rail will be considered in future environmental reviews, and that hazardous cargo be clearly labeled. Those are modest goals.

Upward of 99 percent of oil shipments by rail are made without incident. Pipelines, the alternative, require massive amounts of capital unlikely to be risked as long as railroads have a defensible safety record. One incident in an urban area will make any such claim laughable.

Spokane is as vulnerable a city as any in the country. Washington, its five refineries and proposed coastal oil terminals have a tremendous stake in a rail system operated with maximum safety. At the city, state and national levels, we are not there yet. Far from it.

Bakken crude and its unique volatility have exposed weaknesses in the understanding and oversight of oil shipment by rail. Industry and regulators must find answers, and soon.

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