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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: As oil train shipments increase, talks needed in Olympia

Last spring, Washington lawmakers couldn’t agree on what to do about the increase in oil trains, but they did call for a study. Last week, key legislative leaders learned via a Department of Ecology draft report that the challenge arrived with astonishing speed.

“In Washington, crude oil shipments went from zero in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013, and could reach nearly 3 billion gallons by the end of this year or in 2015,” the Associated Press reported.

Before that, 90 percent of oil arrived at Washington state refineries by ocean tankers, usually from Alaska.

The game-changers are the abundant Bakken shale deposits in North Dakota and Eastern Montana and the oil sands of Alberta, both of which transport their crude by rail. Annual carloads in North America have grown from 9,500 to 415,000 in the past six years.

All of the state’s refineries are in the Puget Sound area, meaning a lot more oil trains are passing through Spokane and other cities. Nearly 3 million Washingtonians live near railroad lines. Each week, 19 unit trains transport about 2.9 million gallons of crude each. Once emptied, there is the return trip through the state. A unit train typically has 100 cars.

The report estimates that oil shipments could increase threefold by 2020 and sixfold by 2035. So the average of three unit trains a day passing through Spokane could grow as high as 18 in the next 20 years. That would greatly increase the odds of a catastrophic derailment and would generate more traffic jams at rail crossings.

As was already well-known, the crude from Bakken is more volatile, but the diluted bitumin from Alberta poses its own challenge because it’s heavier than water. If there is a spill into a body of water, the oil is very difficult to remove.

States have limited reach over railroads, which are regulated by the federal government. But the report notes there are still possible courses of action. Among them: supplying first responders with the training and resources needed to handle disasters; allowing the state Utilities and Transportation Commission inspectors to enter private property to conduct inspections, and improving the safety of some at-grade crossings.

The report calls for a permanent funding source for prevention and response programs. Currently, there is a per-barrel tax charged to oil shipments arriving by sea. Gov. Jay Inslee is reportedly considering a request to the Legislature that would extend the levy to oil trains and pipelines.

The report also has some recommendations for the federal government. Among them: establishing safety standards for tank cars and phasing out older models, and requiring the U.S. Coast Guard to adjust management plans to reflect greater traffic along the Columbia River and Puget Sound area.

The final report will be delivered to the Legislature in March, but lawmakers should begin discussions as soon as possible. The trains are rolling.

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