OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law Thursday a measure that attempts to improve the safety of oil transportation as a sharp increase in trains carrying volatile crude oil poses new safety and environmental risks in the state.
A compromise reached on the last day of the regular legislative session resolved differences between competing bills in the Senate and House.
“Even with the passage of this bill I remain very concerned about the safety of Washingtonians,” Inslee said.
At least 24 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, including a 2013 accident in Quebec that killed 47 people. The latest derailment came earlier this month when a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken region derailed and caught fire in North Dakota, forcing the evacuation of a small town.
Each week, 19 mile-long trains carrying crude oil roll through Washington state. State Department of Ecology officials say that number could jump to 137 or more trains a week if several proposed oil-by-rail facilities are built over the next several years.
The bill signed by Inslee includes some provisions he wanted, such as requiring railroads hauling crude oil to show their ability to pay for oil spill cleanup and requiring facilities that receive oil by trains to provide weekly notice of the type and volume of oil shipped. Under the measure, more limited information will be made public on a quarterly basis.
The measure also extends a barrel tax collected on crude oil and petroleum products to railroads to help pay for oil spill response, though it doesn’t cover pipelines and isn’t increased as Inslee and others had hoped. That barrel tax is currently collected when oil arrives from a marine vessel or barge.
Inslee said that while the state action was a positive step, he said the federal government must do more on the issue because “we still have an unsafe situation in our state.”
“These trains are a mile long with very volatile material, they’re rolling through our neighborhoods and they’re not safe today,” Inslee said. “More needs to be done.”
Environmental groups who had pushed for stronger protections called it a “weakened bill” when it passed the Legislature last month, saying it removed important protections for Puget Sound. Missing are provisions that would have allowed new rules requiring tug escort for oil tankers and other vessels in Puget Sound.
However, the measure calls for a study of vessel traffic in the Columbia River, including evaluating whether tug escorts are needed for oil tankers or tug barges. In Grays Harbor, where oil-by-rail terminals are proposed, the measure allows rules including tug escort requirements to be adopted but only if those facilities are permitted.
Railroads also have to submit oil spill contingency plans to the Department of Ecology. The bill also requires grants to emergency responders to help pay for oil spill response and firefighting equipment.
Meanwhile, Spokane Riverkeeper has joined six other environmental organizations who are challenging new federal rules aimed at preventing accidents involving trains carrying oil and other flammable fuels.
“We feel the rules are too weak to provide any meaningful protection for the communities in the Spokane area, the Spokane River, or the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer from the increasing oil-by-rail traffic,” said Jerry White, the Spokane Riverkeeper.
The groups argue federal officials gave companies too much time in the 10-year phaseout of railroad tank cars known to rupture during derailments. The petition also says the government has backtracked on earlier requirements for railroads to notify state officials about when oil shipments are moving through communities. And requirements for lower speeds through urban areas should apply to all cities, not just designated “high threat areas,” the groups said.
A petition to set aside portions of the rules was filed Thursday with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by Earthjustice, representing the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Friends of the Columbia River Gorge and others.
The oil industry and two Illinois municipalities also have challenged the federal rules put in place on May 1.
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