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Sunday, March 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: New oil rail rules must ensure accountability

Spokane residents and officials frustrated by a railroad and oil industry filibuster at a June hearing on oil train safety will get another opportunity Oct. 28, and they’ll have new sets of proposed federal and state regulations to support their calls for more measures to protect the public from the very real consequences of an accident.

The state Marine & Rail Oil Transportation Study says 16 loaded oil trains pass through Spokane each week, a volume that could double by 2020 and triple by 2035. And although most of the safety concerns have focused on the volatile Bakken crude that has been linked to several fires or explosions, the report notes the environmental hazard posed by another fuel increasingly being moved by train: liquid bitumen from northern Alberta’s tar sands.

If spilled into waterways, the bitumen sinks to the bottom. More than $1 billion has been spent cleaning up a 2010 spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

The state study, which will be the topic of a five-hour hearing that begins at 5 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel, recommends the implementation of several rules and procedures at a potential cost of more than $13 million. One possible point of leverage for the state, which must defer to federal authorities who regulate interstate commerce, is the control of train speeds through public crossings. Gov. Jay Inslee wants train speeds held to 30 mph. BNSF Railway puts its limit at 45 mph.

The final report to the Legislature is due in March. Expect legal challenges from industry if the state adopts an aggressive regulation plan.

Back in Washington, D.C., the Federal Railroad Administration has rejected arguments that sharing information regarding shipments with emergency responders would compromise their safety. In states like Washington, that information must be available to the public.

The industries also argued that disclosure would expose proprietary commercial information to competitors, as if there was any real alternative to railroads for moving Bakken crude to the coast.

They also are asking the proposed period for eliminating outdated oil tank cars be doubled to four years from two. Although they argue the two-year deadline is unreasonable, an Oregon maker of sturdier tankers says that is not so. And at least one Washington refinery – BP Cherry Point – has stopped using the older cars.

The trains are going to roll, and emergency responders and the public are entitled to know when and where. If the oil and railroad industries want to convince Washington residents they are taking every reasonable precaution, they should get on board with the most transparent disclosure rules that themselves do not compromise safety.

Federal and state regulators should be equally transparent in setting rules intelligible to industry and the public. Too much overlap or contradiction, and who is responsible for what becomes garbled. Above all, the public wants accountability.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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