Real-time info is the answer

Risk management is bureaucratic jargon designed to ease anxiety. And there’s understandable anxiety with the transport by rail of highly flammable Bakken crude oil from North Dakota through the Pacific Northwest.

Real-time information about routes and shipments is the best method to hasten emergency response and preparedness in the event of a catastrophic derailment. Those specifics won’t flow from last week’s emergency order from the U.S. Department of Transportation that requires railroads inform the state on the number of Bakken trains traveling through Washington each week, and on which routes. The exact days, times and shipment amounts will remain unknown.

In a bureaucratic culture measured in incremental steps, however, it signals progress.

“We’re all kind of worried about (Bakken crude) because it is much more flammable than regular crude oil. We have been asking for more information,” said Brad Reading, assistant chief of Snohomish County Fire District 1 and chairman of the countywide Special Operations Policy Board. “This is certainly a step forward.”

The 2013 derailment of an oil train in Quebec and attendant inferno that killed 47 people brought into focus the perils of transporting Bakken crude by rail, particularly with older “DOT-111” tank cars. These aging carriers — around 80,000 are in use — are more likely to puncture than newer tank cars with sturdier hulls.

Shipments into the Pacific Northwest quietly began two years ago. According to the Department of Ecology, Washington went from zero barrels a year in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels in 2013.

“So sudden was the region’s oil boom that companies found themselves with scant infrastructure,” the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place writes in an institute report. “Railways seized the opportunity to play a role traditionally reserved for pipelines: moving large volumes of crude oil. The rail industry embarked on a breakneck campaign of building tanker cars as refineries and ports began hatching plans to receive the product from trains.”

As The Herald reports, refiners and railroads fear that more shipment information boosts the risk of sabotage and disruption by activists. That mustn’t sideline emergency responders and transportation officials from receiving real-time information.

The best way to manage risk is to bolster safety. BNSF announced its proactive purchase of 5,000 safer tank cars, while standards to improve the DOT-111 cars are more than a year behind schedule.

Prevention — less jargony than “risk management” — needs to be the touchstone.

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