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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington lawmakers discuss oil train safety bills

Chad Sokol Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – Somewhere on its way from North Dakota to Western Washington – as it passed through Spokane and other populated areas in early November – a railroad car leaked more than 1,600 gallons of crude oil. But some federal, state and local agencies didn’t learn about it until a month later.

Federal inspectors discovered the car was oil-stained and missing a valve cap when it arrived at BP’s Cherry Point Refinery, but no one notified the Department of Ecology, which responds to inland oil spills, or the U.S. Coast Guard, which responds to spills along waterways like the Columbia River.

The incident, and ongoing state and federal investigations into the delay, highlight potential communication gaps as the amount of oil shipped by rail grows exponentially. A House committee Tuesday looked at ways to close those gaps.

“We need assistance, we need knowledge and we need disclosure,” Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm told the House Environment Committee, noting that several major railroads run through the city. “We really are in the crosshairs of major tanker cars that come through Eastern Washington to Western Washington.”

A bill, sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, could tighten state regulations on railroad and shipping companies to help prevent and respond to inland oil spills and disastrous tanker explosions – like the one that leveled a Canadian town in 2013, killing 47 people.

“We have seen the accidents – this is not a theoretical risk,” said Robert Duff, a senior policy adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee. “Clearly, we’re further behind on the rail side than we are on the marine side.”

As fracking pulls more oil from the Bakken shale fields in the upper Midwest and existing pipelines are repurposed for Canadian tar sands, the oil industry is relying heavily on railroads. American freight trains shipped about 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013. That’s about 40 times more than 2008.

Farrell’s bill would allow the Utilities and Transport Commission, which oversees the railroads, to impose additional safety standards like installing warning signs at the 350 private railroad crossings in the state. It also would allow the state Pilotage Commission, which oversees marine shipments, to escort tug-and-barge companies moving crude oil.

The bill has wide support from House Democrats, but an identical bill introduced the first week of the session in the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to get a hearing. Both were introduced at Inslee’s request.

A sticking point between the parties is the broad public disclosure requirements that go beyond federal standards. Supporters say it’s necessary for firefighters and other first responders to know what kind of oil and how much of it is coming through their communities.

The Senate is considering another option, a bill sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, where the Cherry Point Refinery is located. His bill does not contain the disclosure requirements but would require the Department of Ecology to assess safety issues in waterways along some rail lines.

In an incident first reported last month by Tribune News Service, the leaking tanker car was discovered Nov. 5 at the BP Cherry Point refinery near Ferndale, Washington, by Federal Railroad Administration inspectors. The car was 1,611 gallons short, enough to fill the gas tanks of 100 Subaru Foresters.

Neither the railroad nor the third-party company that unloaded the oil at the terminal could determine where the missing oil had spilled, making it likely that it leaked somewhere along the train’s 1,200-mile path between the loading terminal in Dore, North Dakota, and the refinery.

The incident was not initially reported to any local or state officials. The Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission found out on Dec. 3 when it received a copy of the report BNSF Railway submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The information never reached the state Department of Ecology, which responds to inland oil spills; the U.S. Coast Guard, which responds to oil spills along navigable waterways; or the Whatcom County Unified Emergency Coordination Center. All three first learned of the incident last month from a reporter.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said the train “was not in transit, not on our property and not in our custody” when the spill was detected and that the company submitted the required reports to state and federal regulators. Federal and state regulators are investigating.

Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

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