New railroad safety rules taking effect next month

OLYMPIA — New rail safety rules will take effect next month as the state begins bolstering its defenses against the risks from a growing number of oil trains traveling throughout Washington.

Warning signs will be installed at rail crossings on private property and railroad firms must show their financial means to pay for a “reasonable” worst-case accident, under rules adopted earlier this month by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Anther change will allow large population cities like Everett to obtain state help for inspecting tracks. Also a regulatory fee paid by the railroad industry will go up and the additional money will be used by the commission to hire more track inspectors.

The rules, which take effect March 11, are a result of a 2015 law passed in response to the increasing amount of crude oil transported by train. The comprehensive law dealt with prevention of and response to derailments or other incidents.

As recently as 2011 no oil trains traveled through Snohomish County or the rest of the state. Oil arrived only in pipelines and by marine tanker. Now in a typical week, a dozen or more trains carrying at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude travel through the county to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

And the number might go higher if the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Ferndale is built.

The commission mandates evolved through public hearings and months of talks involving staff, environmentalists and rail industry representatives.

“I think everyone is interested in preserving the safety of the state’s residents,” said Jason Lewis, transportation policy adviser to the commission.

Under the commission rules, new signage requirements will be enforced on the estimated 350 private crossings located along oil routes.

Railroad firms are responsible for ensuring signs alerting drivers to an upcoming crossing are installed by mid-July. These will not involve flashing lights and bells but will be placards with the words “private crossing” and the Crossbuck symbol.

“We want to make sure we have at least minimum amount of signage so people know they are going over a crossing,” Lewis said.

Under the financial responsibility rule change, rail firms will provide the state with certain documentation demonstrating their ability to pay costs incurred in the event of a “reasonable worst-case” scenario involving one of their trains.

Companies like BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad will need to turn in information about their level of insurance and reserve accounts. They also must report the average amount of oil shipped by train the previous year as well as indicate the largest train of the previous year.

That information will enable commission staff to figure out if the companies are able to cover the cost of cleanup which in the rule is calculated to be $16,800 per barrel or $400 per gallon.

Another rule will allow Everett and other first-class cities — defined as those with a population of 10,000 or more at the time of organization — to join the commission’s safety inspection program. If Everett opted in, the commission would take over the task of inspecting crossings on oil routes in the city. If improvements or modifications are needed, the city and commission would discuss how to get it done.

The new commission rules are just the first batch of changes spawned by the 2015 oil transportation law. The state Department of Ecology is working on the second.

One new rule aims to provide cities, counties, tribes and fire departments advance notice of when an oil train is coming through a community. It will apply to operators of facilities that receive crude oil by rail and pipeline.

Ecology officials are now collecting feedback from interested parties on how much detail on the type and source of oil being shipped should be contained in the notices. Formal language is due out in April with adoption anticipated by August, according to a timeline on the agency’s website.

The department is also beefing up requirements for railroads to provide contingency plans for dealing with oil train and pipeline incidents. That language is due out this spring for possible adoption this summer.

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

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