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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: New safety standards for oil trains are needed to prevent tragedy

A westbound train carrying crude oil toward the coast passes through downtown Spokane in this photo from 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A westbound train carrying crude oil toward the coast passes through downtown Spokane in this photo from 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington’s new law to establish safer standards on the highly flammable oil trains that pass regularly through Spokane – past hospitals, a high school, a freeway – is likely headed for a courtroom.

Andy Billig, the Spokane Democrat and Senate majority leader, hopes that will be just a short stop on the way to its eventual destination: a safer national standard for oil trains, which can become massive, mile-long bombs when they derail.

“The federal government has been falling down on the job in regulating oil train safety,” Billig said this week.

But states and communities have little regulatory recourse; railroads are largely governed by federal law, and efforts to set safer federal standards have stalled. The Spokane City Council took a run at imposing safety standards on coal and oil trains, but backed away after its attorney said it was almost certain to die a legal death in court.

A ballot issue followed; the measure failed, after a full-court press from railroads and energy companies, and opposition from local conservative politicians and business groups. Opponents argued it would have been bad for the economy, and a loser in court – an instance of the city failing to “stay in its lane.”

And the trains keep rolling, unaltered by further safety considerations, through downtown Spokane on their way from the Bakken oil fields to Washington refineries. As an issue for local and state governance, oil train safety won’t go away, nor should it. More than a dozen oil train explosions in recent years make it a matter of urgency for those of us who live, work, study, shop and heal in the potential blast zones.

The 2013 disaster in Lac-Magentic, Quebec, (death toll: 47) and the 2016 derailment into the Columbia River and evacuation of Mosier, Oregon, were causes for local governments to insist on public safety, not surrender and declare regulatory impotence. Awaiting solutions from industry and a foot-dragging, deferential federal bureaucracy is no solution at all.

Attorneys general in six states with heavy oil train traffic, including Washington AG Bob Ferguson, have called on the federal government to do what the new state law will do: Require that crude oil be stored at lower vapor pressure.

The law, developed in part with efforts from Gonzaga law students working with City Councilman Breean Beggs, puts vapor-pressure limits on crude oil unloaded and stored in Washington state. Vapor pressure affects the volatility and flammability of crude oil, and proponents of the lower limits say it makes it much less likely that a derailment will become an explosion.

The law requires the oil be stored at 9 pounds per square inch or lower, a limit that will require oil companies to spend money on equipment to achieve that standard. There is no current federal limit.

The law was scaled back after intense resistance in Olympia from oil companies and refinery employees. It takes a relatively modest step, requiring the lower pressure limit only if a company increases oil shipments in the state by 10% or more above current levels.

Billig’s initial proposal would have put the 9 psi standard in place within a year. But he said he still considers the new law a “win,” because it puts the standard on the books for the first time in the country.

“While we know there is more to do to reduce the risk of a catastrophic event, this bill puts in place protections if we see an increase in oil train traffic traveling through our state,” he said in a news release.

He hopes other states follow and that subsequent pressure on the federal government – which was considering such a standard under the Obama administration, but stopped under Trump – will make the adoption of 9 psi an inevitability.

He likens it to the evolution of phosphate standards in dishwashing detergent. In 2010, Washington became the first state in the country to implement a ban on phosphates in automatic dishwasher soap, to protect river water quality. Other states followed shortly thereafter, and within a matter of years, it became the de facto national standard.

“Companies were all like, ‘You can’t do this, this is terrible,’ ” he said. “Now you can’t go anywhere and buy dishwasher detergent with phosphates in it.”

Oil and railroad companies are now insisting that we can’t do this, this is terrible, and politicians in North Dakota, the country’s No. 2 producer of crude oil, are echoing them.

About a tenth of the daily crude production of North Dakota, 150,000 barrels, is shipped to refineries in Washington state – via downtown Spokane. That state’s congressional delegation pressured Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the law, and its Industrial Commission has pledged to sue.

North Dakota’s top oil regulator, Lynn Helms, told Washington lawmakers earlier this year that there is no scientific reason to support a 9 psi limit, and urged them to await results of an ongoing study. The vice president of the state’s Petroleum Council said rail shipment of hazardous materials is a federal issue, and predicted the law will not survive a court battle.

The arguments probably won’t be resolved anytime soon. Meanwhile, the oil trains rumble through downtown.

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