Oil train rules under review

EVERETT — A year after Gov. Jay Inslee signed an oil train safety bill into law, the state Department of Ecology is working toward finally putting it into practice.

The process is known as rule-making. It sets the procedures for enforcement and will pass through public review before becoming part of the Washington Administrative Code.

The department convened public hearings in Everett last week on the new rules.

The new law mandates that cities, counties, tribal governments and fire departments be given weekly advance notice of crude oil shipments arriving by rail.

Pipelines that transport crude oil also are required to submit biannual reports to Ecology.

Before 2012, oil only arrived in the Puget Sound region by tanker or pipeline. That all changed with the shale-oil boom in North Dakota.

A corresponding increase in freight derailments, including some carrying hazardous materials, has raised awareness of the potential danger to communities across the country. That’s happened even as the amount of oil shipped by rail actually dropped in 2015 in the face of cheaper imports arriving by tanker, according to the Financial Times.

The law places the responsibility of reporting those shipments on the facilities that receive them. Railroads are not covered.

The reason for that, said Kathy Taylor, the Department of Ecology’s Statewide Resources section manager, is that facilities are already reporting oil shipments by tanker, and it’s less of a burden on them to expand their reporting than to impose an entirely new system.

“The easiest way to get the information is from the facilities already reporting,” Taylor said.

That means that the scope of the new law is limited to four refineries in the state and one pipeline company that receive shipments of crude oil by rail.

Facilities and pipelines that receive or transmit other hazardous materials, such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel, natural gas or anything other than crude oil, are not covered.

The rule doesn’t cover facilities, such as the Shell Puget Sound Refinery in Anacortes, which receive crude oil shipments by ship, and thus covered by a separate law, Taylor said.

Nor does the rule cover shipments that pass through Washington state on their way to an out-of-state destination.

“This would be the start of putting that system in place,” Taylor said.

About a dozen people testified on the reporting requirements, asking to plug some of those perceived loopholes.

“If anything’s going through the state there must be some way of reporting what’s going on,” said Everett resident Bob Creamer.

Barnaby Dow, the external affairs manager for King County Emergency Management, requested that the actual volume of oil also be reported. “This is critical information for emergency planning and incident response,” he said.

Dean Smith, the chairman of the Port Gardner Neighborhood Association and one of the organizers of a local train-watching group, suggested that the rules be tightened to require all trains carrying crude oil to be equipped with GPS transponders, reporting their locations every 10 minutes to a state emergency response center.

Smith’s train watchers counted 12 crude-oil trains and 29 coal trains in one week in April 2015. In April 2016, the train watchers counted 14 oil trains and four coal trains, although there might have been three more coal trains the counters missed, Smith said.

Ecology’s analysis shows the financial burden of the new reporting rules is minor:$70,000-$290,000 over a 20-year time frame for facilities, and just $344-$1,428 for pipeline operators.

Ecology also convened a public hearing on a rule requiring railroads shipping crude to provide emergency spill response plans.

The public comment period for both rules is open until June 10. More information can be found on the rules at ecy.wa.gov/programs/spills/rules/main.html.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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