BNSF: About 10 oil trains per week pass through county

OLYMPIA — Trains each carrying at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil are traveling through Snohomish County roughly 10 times a week, according to a report released Tuesday.

The trains, operated by BNSF Railway, are transporting the North Dakota crude to refineries in Anacortes and Cherry Point, based on information given to the state earlier this month, as required by a new federal directive.

Snohomish County is one of 16 in Washington through which BNSF moves large crude shipments, with the heaviest oil train traffic occurring in communities in the eastern and southwestern areas of the state.

Data released Tuesday only covers train traffic from May 29 through June 4. Nineteen trains went through Klickitat County and 18 each rolled though Adams, Franklin, Skamania, Clark and Benton counties, the report shows. Fourteen trains traveled through King County, nine in Skagit County and five in Whatcom County.

However, the numbers could be higher in some of those communities.

BNSF Railway submitted an updated tally June 16 that won’t be made public until next week. Railroads must inform the state when the weekly number of trains increases or decreases by 25 percent, under the federal rule.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in May ordered railroads to provide states a “reasonable estimate” of the number of trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude expected to travel through each county, each week and along which routes. Railroads are not required to provide the specific days and times of shipments.

BNSF’s report doesn’t identify which routes it uses, as seems to be required under the federal rule, but state officials don’t plan to press for additional details.

“We are comfortable with the information provided and have a solid understanding of the routes that Burlington Northern uses to transport the Bakken crude,” said Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Division.

Any effort to enforce the order would fall to the federal government, which wrote the rule, she said.

Knowing the time and date of an oil train isn’t going to alter how fire departments and hazardous material response teams react should a derailment, explosion, fire or other incident occur, said Lyn Gros, director of the Emergency Services Coordination Agency, which serves 10 cities in south Snohomish County.

“It’s really about having equipment and having training and having an ongoing relationship with the railroads to be ready to respond in the event anything goes wrong,” she said.

A BNSF spokesman could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Details released Tuesday mirror what residents found when they camped out by tracks and kept count of trains that included tank cars of crude oil, which can be identified by a red, diamond-shaped hazardous-material placard that bears the number 1267.

Gros said the public needs to keep the risk in perspective. Dangerous and volatile cargo like chlorine and propane are routinely transported by rail on the same routes, she said.

Pat McClain, executive director for the city of Everett, said freight traffic is part of the city’s history, and oil trains are simply a newer component of it.

There is growing concern over crude-by-rail shipments at the local, state and federal levels and Everett leaders are engaged in the conversations, he said.

To this point, they are backing development of safer tank cars, ensuring emergency responders have needed equipment and the infrastructure of tracks and at-grade crossings are in safe condition, he said.

The federal order came in response to a surge in oil trains and a spate of accidents in the U.S. and Canada involving Bakken, a light, sweet crude considered more volatile than many other types of oil.

U.S. crude oil shipments by rail topped a record 110,000 carloads in the first quarter of 2014, spurred by booming production of shale oil in the northern Great Plains and other parts of the country, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The state Department of Ecology estimates Bakken crude shipments by rail in Washington rose from zero barrels in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels in 2013.

BNSF is one of three railroad operators moving large enough shipments of Bakken crude in Washington to require reporting.

The Portland and Western Railroad runs an average of three trains a week between Vancouver and points in Oregon while Tacoma Rail moves the same number in Pierce County each week, according to information posted Tuesday.

Union Pacific Railroad informed the state the company does not move enough Bakken crude oil on any single shipment to meet the reporting threshold.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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