Gov. Jay Inslee is calling on federal regulators to issue an emergency order demanding railroads that haul Bakken crude send safety inspectors to physically walk the rail lines at least 24 hours before transporting the volatile oil.
In a letter to the railroad administration’s chief, Sarah Feinberg, Inslee called current federal inspection standards “insufficient to protect our communities from the imminent threat of fires, spills, and collisions that result from oil train derailments.”
The Federal Railroad Administration requires two inspections per week for mainline track and allows mechanical inspections rather than physically walking the rail looking for defects.
“Railroads that move Bakken crude oil must increase the number, type and quality of inspections,” Inslee wrote in a letter dated Thursday. “Train tracks should be inspected every day at a minimum, and tracks should be physically inspected at least 24-hours prior to oil transportation. Without these increased inspections, Bakken crude oil trains should not be allowed to travel through our communities.”
Inslee’s call comes after an oil train headed to Tacoma derailed in the Columbia River Gorge, in the town of Mosier, Oregon, last month.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and other political leaders called for a moratorium on oil transport. Inslee also called for Union Pacific to curtail Bakken oil traveling through Washington. So far, the calls for a moratorium have gone unanswered.
Matthew Lehner, a spokesman with the FRA, said every railroad is expected to exceed the minimum federal standards and take whatever steps are necessary to operate without accidents. The federal government’s preliminary report blamed the Mosier derailment on Union Pacific’s failure to maintain its tracks properly.
“Our full investigation into the incident continues,” Lehner wrote in a statement. “If FRA finds that all railroads, or just UP specifically, need to make operational changes on crude routes, we will not hesitate to direct them to do so.”
Lehner said the investigation could take up to a year before it’s complete and the railroad administration will respond to Inslee eventually.
The Union Pacific tracks near Mosier were inspected shortly before the derailment, and no problems were identified. However, accident investigators believe a track problem caused the derailment. The inspection was not done by physically walking the track, but rather by vehicle.
Jason Lewis, a senior transportation policy adviser with Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission, which is charged with overseeing the state’s rail lines, said that if the federal government were to agree to Inslee’s request, it would give state officials more certainty that walking inspections were being completed and would create stricter regulatory standards.
“It will mean a more rigorous inspection schedule,” Lewis said.
Justin Jacobs, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said that since the Mosier derailment, the railroad has voluntarily increased inspections, including walking the curves on a monthly basis.
“Our goal is the same as everyone else’s, to operate trains safely,” he said.
On the Washington side of the Gorge, Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF Railway – which hauls the bulk of crude through the state – said BNSF inspects tracks daily and requires walking inspections of all the switches.
When pressed about whether safety inspectors are mandated to physically walk the rail lines and how often, he responded, “We have qualified track inspectors over the main line daily, high rail vehicles, vehicles on the track, but if there is an area an inspector wants to walk, those daily inspections … they will stop and get out and walk areas that are in question daily.”
He declined to say how Inslee’s request would change BNSF Railway’s safety requirements.
“I’m not speculating if it would change,” he said.
In the past couple of years, the number of oil “unit trains” traveling through both states has increased dramatically. Many more trains would be likely to travel through the Columbia River Gorge if Vancouver Energy’s plans to build the nation’s largest oil terminal here are approved. The governor has the final say in whether the Tesoro-Savage project will be approved.