With trains rumbling on the BNSF viaduct behind her and flanked by uniformed Spokane firefighters, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, called for greater federal oversight and stricter regulations for the nation’s railways carrying crude oil.
Cantwell – who was joined by Spokane Mayor David Condon, Council President Ben Stuckart, Fire Chief Bobby Williams and Spokane Valley Deputy Chief of Operations Andy Hail – stood in front of Spokane Fire Station No. 4 and said Spokane had a particular interest in oil train safety but was not unique in its concern.
“We know that every day a couple of trains (carrying crude oil) pass through the heart of this city,” Cantwell said, pointing out that an explosion like the one in 2013 in Quebec that killed 47 people and left a “half-mile blast radius” would have devastating effects in Spokane. “Spokane is not alone. … Practically every metropolitan area in our state is affected by this.”
Cantwell chose Spokane to host her first news conference on the bill, called the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act. The bill would require limiting the volatile components in crude oil shipped on rail, prohibit the use of older tank cars, establish comprehensive emergency response plans, require better inspection of rail infrastructure and better train first responders for the possibility of a spill or explosion.
Her legislation would decommission more than 37,000 tank cars that currently carry crude oil, such as the older DOT-111 cars. It would also require greater collaboration between rail companies and local first responders, including disclosure of when and where crude oil is being transported on the rails.
Williams said Spokane was “dissected” by railway traffic and appreciated the attention Cantwell was bringing to the dangers posed by oil trains.
“This new threat has added another dimension to our community’s risk,” Williams said.
Hail echoed Williams, saying oil trains could have “catastrophic consequences.”
“We have a very significant concern in our level of preparedness and ability to respond,” Hail said.
Stuckart said he appreciated Spokane’s history as a rail town but was not confident in the region’s or railway’s ability to respond to a spill or explosion. He said the City Council would vote soon on a resolution supporting Cantwell’s bill.
Condon reiterated that his top concern was safety and ensuring the city’s emergency crews could “respond effectively if there is an accident.”
Cantwell noted that the country is in the “midst of a boom of energy production,” which she said only adds to the urgency of her bill as crude is increasingly shipped by rail. According to the Association of American Railroads, about 9,500 train cars carried crude oil nationwide in 2009. By 2013, that number had jumped to well over 400,000 carloads, or about 290 million barrels of crude oil.
The issue of oil trains reached Spokane when two companies proposed opening a terminal in Vancouver, Washington, to handle oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Spokane is the only large urban area on the rail lines between North Dakota and Vancouver, Washington, and trains passing through town could carry up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil, about 15 million gallons, every day if the project is approved by Gov. Jay Inslee later this year.This article was changed on April 1, 2015 to change an editor’s error that listed Vancouver, B.C., instead of Vancouver, Washington.