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

House panel hears concerns over oil train legislation

OLYMPIA – Proposed rules for trains carrying oil across Washington don’t put enough responsibility on the railroads and should include oil pipelines, a Spokane city councilman told a House committee Monday.

But some of the proposed rules to increase the number of workers on each train could run afoul of federal laws and negotiated labor contracts, railroad officials warned the House Environment Committee.

Although environmental groups called for more information to be made public about the time and place of such volatile shipments, Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, worried about giving too much: “Aren’t we just tipping off environmental terrorists and religious extremist terrorists?”

“We live in a free society,” countered Mike Racine, a member of the Washington Scuba Alliance, which is opposing the bill. “I think that the public has a right to know what’s going over our rail lines.”

The House and Senate each passed legislation trying to address the increased oil shipments coming across the state from oil fields in Canada and the Dakotas.

The Senate bill, which focuses on train shipments, would require railroads to notify the Department of Ecology. That department would pass information about oil shipments to the Emergency Management Division seven days in advance. That information would not be made public, although the department would issue quarterly reports with “aggregate” information.

The state would levy a tax on tank cars that deliver oil to a refinery, and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission would increase its fee by 1 percent on the railroads’ in-state operating revenues, to help pay for more inspectors and develop safety programs for crossings.

Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder called it a “piecemeal approach” because it doesn’t address pipelines and lets the railroads off lightly as far as financial responsibility for preparing for a spill from a derailment in communities the oil trains pass through.

“The city of Spokane has dense urban areas around the rail lines,” he said. In 1991, a derailment just west of Spokane resulted in cars falling from a trestle onto Interstate 90 below; there were no hazardous substances in those cars, but if they had been oil cars, crude may have spilled all over the interstate into Latah Creek below and been carried into the Spokane River.

The bill would require railroads to have at least two workers on freight trains, and at least three on a train carrying hazardous materials and four if that train is more than 50 cars long.

But Brock Nelson, of the Union Pacific railroad, said those Washington-only requirements go beyond rail labor standards approved by Congress and would interfere with contract negotiations between the railroads and their unions. They would add cost to goods carried through Washington, putting local shippers at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding states.

“The industry needs to remain flexible,” he said.

A House bill on oil transportation by rail, ship and pipeline is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in a Senate committee.

Environmentalists like that bill more, while railroads and other shipping industries like it even less.