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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

State making headway on rail safety

Despite the fact that railroads are under federal jurisdiction, Washington is among several states that have successfully pushed for reasonable changes regarding oil shipments.

While it’s true that 99 percent of trains complete their trips without incident, it only takes one derailment of volatile crude or other hazardous materials to cause a disaster. At least 27 oil trains have been involved in major accidents in North America in the past 10 years, according to the Associated Press.

The Bakken oil fields of North Dakota have produced a mother lode of volatile crude. As a result, oil train traffic from Bakken to the West Coast increased dramatically, though it has tapered some with the drop in oil prices. An average of two to three of these long trains pass through Spokane a day.

The June train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, raised eyebrows in train towns across the West, and in Spokane. Of particular concern is the downtown viaduct that elevates trains as they pass through. A derailment would be potentially devastating to downtown residents, workers, businesses and the Spokane River.

A couple of recent developments show that Washington state is doing what it can to ensure safer passage and to develop an emergency response strategy.

Starting next month, recipients of crude oil shipments, such as refineries and terminals, must notify the Department of Ecology, which will then alert fire departments and other emergency response teams. Pipeline operators will have to issue twice-a-year reports on the origin and volumes of crude they are moving.

The Department of Ecology will issue quarterly reports that summarize train movements.

In addition, oil-hauling railroads will have to show the state they have a workable contingency plan for dealing with major spills. Details must be provided to the Department of Ecology, which then will oversee drills to test the railroads’ preparedness. It’s the same requirement operators of pipelines and marine vessels already must meet. California and Minnesota have a similar rule.

In addition to strengthening oversight, the Washington Legislature adopted a tax on oil moved by trains for a cleanup fund. Railroad lobbyists fought off a bid in the Oregon Legislature to adopt similar measures.

Last summer, the Federal Railroad Administration urged several states to sign nondisclosure agreements on the location of oil trains. Washington and Idaho were among the states that declined. Two rail companies, Norfolk Southern and CSX, tried to block the release of train location information in Maryland, according to a Governing magazine article. A judge rebuffed them.

Rather than accept that the feds are the sole regulator of railroads, states have continually pushed and prodded for change. As a result, oil shipments are more transparent and sensible safety measures have been adopted.

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