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Oil train wreck would be challenge, Spokane Valley deputy fire chief testifies

Esther Angell, 9, carries a banner protesting oil trains with her mother Kirsten Angell as they march Tuesday in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Esther Angell, 9, carries a banner protesting oil trains with her mother Kirsten Angell as they march Tuesday in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

If an oil train exploded in the Spokane metro area, local emergency responders would evacuate the area, a deputy fire chief told state officials Tuesday night.

People injured in the blast would be rescued if possible, and firefighters would work to contain the fire and keep the spilled oil from spreading.

But, “I’m not going to pretend to anyone,” said Andy Hail, deputy chief for the Spokane Valley Fire Department. “We are going to be extremely challenged to respond to a significant event.”

Hail was among the local officials that testified at Tuesday’s hearing on the growth in oil shipments by rail through Washington and steps the state can take to reduce the risk of oil spills and beef up disaster response.

Nearly 3 billion gallons of crude oil will move through the state on trains this year. That volume could triple within five years, as highly flammable crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields is shipped to refineries and ports in Western Washington, Oregon and California.

The risk of a fiery wreck, such the one that killed 47 people in Quebec last year, or evacuated the town of Casselton, North Dakota, figured prominently in the speakers’ remarks.

“We’ve all seen the pictures,” said state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. “An oil train explosion here would be catastrophic.”

Hail said his department takes a neutral stance on oil rail shipments. BNSF Railway, which ships most of the oil, has improved rail safety through more frequent track inspections and lower train speeds through town. But there’s more to be done to help emergency responders prepare for a possible derailment and explosion, Hail said.

Local firefighters need more training and equipment, and exercises to help local emergency officials prepare a coordinated response, he said.

“We would also like to ask why the railroad can’t provide technical resources in a major metro area such as Spokane,” Hail said.

BNSF Railway has trailers with foam suppressant stationed in Pasco and in Whitefish, Montana, which would have to be trucked to Spokane in the event of an emergency. The railroad should also station technical spill experts and air-quality monitoring equipment in the Spokane area, Hail said.

In addition, emergency responders want more information about oil shipments, including the volume of specific shipments.

That’s a goal of the state as well, said Dale Jensen, a manager for the Department of Ecology’s spill program. Federal regulations require railroads to alert states when trains contain a million gallons of Bakken crude. “But that’s a high number,” he said.

Oil tankers entering Washington ports must report the volume of oil, type of oil product and its characteristics. “We want the same thing from the railroad,” Jensen said.

A 110-page state report includes other proposals, including requiring railroads to develop oil spill response plans and put up financial guarantees for cleanup costs and damages in the event of a spill or derailment. Gov. Jay Inslee will use the report to develop recommendations to the 2015 Legislature.

Many at the hearing urged state officials to press for tough standards for oil train safety. But Mike Fagan, a Spokane City Council member, urged state officials to “strike a balance between safety and prosperity.” About 10 percent of Washington’s economy depends on rail transport, he said.

Others echoed the importance of rail traffic to the state’s job base.

The Washington Farm Bureau sent a delegation to BNSF’s corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this month to discuss how growing oil train traffic will affect rail shipments of agricultural products.

John Stuhlmiller, the Farm Bureau’s chief executive officer, said he came away encouraged by BNSF’s commitment to increasing rail capacity to keep up with other freight shipments. Nationwide, the railroad’s agricultural shipments are up about 2 percent for the first half of 2014.

“Rail is an essential piece of our economy, and we can’t limit or block rail traffic,” Stuhlmiller said in an interview before the meeting. “We want to make sure it remains a viable mechanism for getting product moved.”

Tuesday’s hearing at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Spokane drew about 200 people. It was the first of two in the state, with a hearing scheduled Thursday in Olympia.

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