OLYMPIA — A new state law requires cities, counties and fire departments be told ahead of time when an oil train is coming through their community.
But it may be the summer of 2017 before they start getting such a heads-up.
The state Department of Ecology is working to determine what details on the type and source of oil being shipped must be in the notices to help communities prepare for a derailment, spill or other type of accident.
“They really want to know the nature of the products getting transported through their area. We have to figure out what’s feasible to require,” said David Byers, response manager for the agency.
“We have a lot of work to do but we believe we can implement it before that.”
The law’s prime sponsor in the state House hopes so.
Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, said the advance notice requirement is “the heart” of the comprehensive bill intended to increase safety in the transport of oil by rail, marine tankers and pipelines.
“It’s very concerning to me that it is going to take as long as it is going to take. I am working to see if we can move that date forward,” she said. “To me, it’s a cornerstone of the law. You can’t make good decisions about the need for further policy if you don’t know what’s happening now.”
Many expressed concern about the ability of rail carriers to safely transport oil and the capability of communities to respond to an incident and protect the public’s safety.
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. In 2013, 700 million gallons moved on the rails through Washington, according to figures compiled by the state.
Now in a typical week a dozen trains carry at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude travel through Snohomish County to refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Under the new state law, Washington will hire more rail inspectors to increase track inspections, assist emergency response agencies in buying equipment and get warning signs installed at private rail crossings.
Also, the state will require rail firms to develop contingency plans for responding to a spill and prove they are financially able to pay the costs incurred in a “reasonable” worst case accident.
“I don’t think you can ever remove all risk. This (law) will definitely help reduce the risk,” said Jason Lewis, a policy adviser for the Utilities and Transportation Commission. The agency oversees rail safety programs and is drafting a rule for the financial responsibility component.
With the advance notice requirement, the law says refineries will give the ecology department at least seven-day notice of expected oil train deliveries.
Each notice should contain the train’s route, if known, and scheduled time of arrival. The type, volume and origin of the oil being shipped will be sought as well. But questions have arisen on the degree of specificity about the product itself.
The law says the “region per bill of lading” of crude oil must be provided. Is it good enough to say Alberta, Canada or must it be the Bakken region of North Dakota or something else?
The ecology department is writing a rule to answer that question plus others related to the composition of the oil getting shipped. When a draft is released — no target date has been set — it will be shepherded through a gauntlet of public review, including hearings.
That process could wrap up in eight months or take until June 30, 2017, to complete. That is the presumed deadline to get it done, Byers said.
Representatives of oil firms, refineries, railroad companies, environmental organizations and public agencies are all keeping tabs on the process.
A spokeswoman for BNSF Railways said their chief concern is assuring that whatever information is required does not compromise the confidentiality of their customers.
“We are making sure we have a good understanding of the language and how it affects our process,” said Courtney Wallace, of BNSF. “Everybody in the state of Washington has an overall concern about the safe transport of hazardous materials including oil. We share the concerns.”
Environmentalists are pressing for as much detail as possible — and for getting it into the hands of first responders as soon as possible.
“The public needs this information to understand the level of risk. The risk is now,” said Rebecca Ponzio, oil campaign director for the Washington Environmental Council.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.