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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council seeks oil train scrutiny

Local leaders say railroads and government regulators must take more steps to prevent a disaster along the rails in Spokane.

The Spokane City Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution asking state and federal officials to scrutinize oil shipments via rail.

Hauling oil by train has increased significantly in the past few years, and one BNSF train with as many as 130 cars travels through downtown Spokane daily.

The safety of tankers used to ship the oil has come under scrutiny as studies indicate that oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota and Montana is more flammable than previously thought. Last summer, 47 people were killed in Quebec after train oil cars derailed and exploded, causing an inferno.

More than a dozen people testified at Monday’s hearing. All supported the resolution.

Terry Hill, a member of Spokane Rising Tide, a group focused on climate change, noted Spokane’s Great Fire of 1889.

“Today, Spokane faces the threat of an even bigger fire,” he said.

Katie Evans, an executive committee member of the Upper Columbia River chapter of the Sierra Club, said the club has called for a moratorium on oil shipments through Spokane.

“The increase in drilling activity has gotten ahead of the necessary infrastructure,” she said.

Councilman Steve Salvatori said railroads should be required to transport oil more safely and phase out outdated tank cars. But he added that it’s safer to ship dangerous chemicals by rail than by semitruck.

Among other actions, the City Council resolution calls for:

• State lawmakers to require railroads to disclose “transportation routes, type of oil and estimated volume and frequency of transfers of oil.”

• The federal government to “immediately implement safety regulations regarding older tank cars, train speeds and other identified hazards associated with flammable crude oil.”

• Government agencies to study potential impacts to public safety, the environment, economy and traffic if any project causes an increase in oil rail traffic through Spokane.

Councilman Jon Snyder said that when two rail cars derailed near downtown and fell onto Interstate 90 in 1991, they were carrying hay.

“It was the perfect thing to be in a derailed train car,” Snyder said. “We may not be so lucky next time.”

Snyder called on BNSF Railway to shift money away from local politics into safety. Last year, BNSF made two $5,000 contributions in support of Spokane candidates. One contribution was made to the Eastern Washington Political Action Committee, which was managed by Mayor David Condon’s re-election campaign manager.

Condon did not take a position on the City Council resolution, but “appreciates their unanimous direction,” city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

“It is our responsibility to understand the risks and potential impacts associated with crude oil rail shipments so that we can plan accordingly,” Condon said in a statement released after the City Council vote. “A collaborative, informed approach will yield the best results for our community.”