As more oil trains roll through, safety concerns increase

EVERETT — The parade of flat-black tank cars began arriving here less than two years ago.

Now the crude oil trains are a familiar sight — and a source of anxiety for many people along the route.

Every week, up to a dozen such trains skirt Puget Sound, each hauling more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude from North Dakota and Montana. They pass erosion-prone coastal bluffs, then travel through the downtowns of Edmonds, Mukilteo, Everett, Marysville and Stanwood. They take the highly flammable fuel from fields in North Dakota to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

“All of us use it every day, even if you don’t know it,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen told a roomful of people at a Stanwood rail-safety forum last month. “How do you move this stuff through our communities safely?”

The rhetorical question summed up a debate over crude-oil transportation that’s raged all year — and promises to result in regulatory changes soon at the state and federal level. That includes a 500-page study that could guide action by the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee when it reaches them next year.

Railroads have carried potentially dangerous cargoes through Washington since tracks were laid in the late 19th century. These days, that means propane fuel as well as chemicals such as chlorine and ammonia.

What makes the recent oil boom different is volume. You can see it in the trains of 100 tank cars or more marked with red-and-white placards bearing the number 1267 — the hazmat code for petroleum crude oil. That’s about 3 million gallons per trainload.

“We think the likelihood of a derailment and fire in our town is high and we’d like to see more preparation for dealing with that, to the point where people are instructed on evacuation and perhaps practice an evacuation,” said Dean Smith, of Everett, who started the Snohomish County Train Watch group.

Smith believes that should apply to people living within a quarter mile of rail lines.

More oil cars coming

BNSF Railway reports carrying 19 loaded oil trains through the state every week. That includes eight to 12 through Snohomish County. By 2020, the state estimates that 137 loaded oil trains could pass through the state weekly if new refineries and terminals are built on north Puget Sound, at Grays Harbor and on the Columbia River. That’s a sevenfold increase from current levels.

As recently as 2011, trains weren’t bringing any crude here at all.

Washington still receives most of its oil by sea or through pipelines, but the share moved by rail has gone up steadily, the state says. Trains hauled 8.4 percent of the total last year.

BNSF maintains that the oil trains are a small part of the overall increase in freight volume already causing traffic headaches in local towns. Agricultural products and containers are the biggest factors.

“Take out oil and coal trains and traffic is still going up,” Larsen said.

The oil-train numbers have only started to come into focus during the second half of this year, following a federal directive that forced rail companies to report crude-oil shipments.

The pace of change has left federal and state lawmakers scrambling to enact changes to safeguard against spills and explosions.

A state Department of Ecology draft report released Dec. 1 outlines steps to lower the risks of moving oil by rail.

The Legislature authorized the study last year and Inslee later issued a directive to get recommendations out sooner. A final report is due by March 1.

The current draft includes 43 recommendations, starting with better funding Washington’s program for preventing and responding to oil spills. Another suggestion would add eight rail inspectors at the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission through a change in railroad regulatory fees that would generate an extra $2.5 million per year.

Other parts of the report focus on strengthening local hazmat and spill response. A state survey of local fire departments found that 59 percent believed they were inadequately trained and equipped to handle a train derailment that results in a fire.

The prospect of derailments makes oil trains a much greater potential threat to human health and safety than coal trains, which also have attracted significant attention.

“Bakken crude oil has potential volatility, putting public safety at risk,” the state report says. “These hazards came to light in a tragic rail incident in Quebec (in July 2013) when 47 people lost their lives as an oil train derailed and burned.”

The report also contemplates the potential for oil spills to kill birds and marine life and to spoil beaches and groundwater.

“Almost 2,500 miles of major rivers in Washington run within 1,000 feet of a rail line,” the study says.

A separate report by the Puget Sound Regional Council last summer counted 10 large crude-by-rail oil spills in the U.S. and Canada since March 2013.

Widespread concern

Public hearings in Olympia and Spokane this fall attracted more than 1,000 people who wanted to weigh in on the state’s draft report. Among them: firefighters, longshoremen, tribal leaders, shellfish industry workers, crabbers and marine pilots.

“The diverse set of stakeholders who attended was astounding,” said Rein Attemann, an advocacy manager for the nonprofit Washington Environmental Council in Seattle. “It was a clear indication that the public has woken up.”

The Environmental Council is urging that the state not open any new oil-by-rail terminals. It calls the state report “a good starting point” but says it falls short.

“If an accident happens, it will be catastrophic for the water quality and the economies that depend on that environment,” Attemann said. “We really hope that this study provides the basis for some legislation.”

The group wants to see more-detailed studies of the effect of crude-by-rail transportation on the economy and public health. They also want to know how it might contribute to climate change. They want to see the state take a good look at rail infrastructure through 100-year flood plains and landslide zones.

The comment letter also raises the issue of loaded oil trains traveling over Stevens Pass. For now, only empty tank cars travel that route eastbound, while trains with oil follow a route along the Columbia River into Western Washington.

BNSF Railway, which hauls most of the oil in Washington, is reviewing the state’s report, spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the state of Washington and the nation in making rail safety a priority,” Wallace said.

Larsen’s congressional district includes the BNSF lines from Everett north and four oil refineries.

He often points out that federal law requires the railroad to carry all cargo — so it isn’t an option to stop carrying commodities such as oil or coal, just because communities along the way disagree.

“I think pursuing tougher standards is the route we should go,” Larsen said.

Phasing out old cars

One effort at the federal level has focused on phasing out older tank cars, known by the name DOT-111. The same type of car was involved in the deadly Quebec explosion.

At least 80 percent of the tank cars used in Washington are newer, safer models, the state estimates.

Sen. Patty Murray announced last week that she has helped push for a Jan. 15 deadline for the federal Department of Transportation to issue a final rule for new tank car design standards. The state draft report recommends phasing out the DOT-111 cars within two years.

BNSF, on its own initiative, is working to add 5,000 newer tank cars to replace DOT-111 models, Wallace said. The company touts investing $235 million in safety infrastructure this year.

“If we didn’t have trains, we’d have a lot more trucks,” Wallace said. “Just something to think about.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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