Oil train derailment, fire a sobering, timely reminder

Not that the issue needed the added emphasis, but on Friday, the same day as the Washington state Department of Ecology was taking public comment in Vancouver on its proposed rules regarding the safety of oil by rail, four tanker cars were burning near the Columbia River town of Mosier, Oregon. Sixteen cars of a 96-car Union Pacific train had derailed.

As of Sunday, response teams were working to mop up a sheen of oil from a nearby creek and the Columbia River, where stocks of endangered salmon are now swimming upstream to spawning beds. No injuries were reported, but the spill and fire damaged Mosier’s water treatment and sewer systems, forcing their shutdown. Investigations into the derailment’s causes continued.

The meeting couldn’t have been more spot on to the issue that was burning 90 miles to the east. It regarded rulemaking the Ecology Department is now midway through to strengthen protections and response to oil by rail. One will require an oil-spill contingency plans from the railroads and its oil industry customers and the other a notification process to alert local officials and first responders when oil is being transported through their communities.

Both were launched last year by legislation. An early estimate said the process might not be complete until a year from now, but the current timeline has set adoption of both rules by the end of August. Ecology is accepting public comment on the proposed rules until Friday.

Both rules will help, particularly as the amount of oil and other petroleum products increase as they roll along the Columbia, past the Puget Sound and other state waterways and through our communities on their way to refineries, and potentially export facilities, in Tacoma, Anacortes and Cherry Point near Ferndale. In 2011, oil trains moving through Snohomish County and the rest of the state were nearly nonexistent; most of the crude processed at state refineries came by marine tankers or pipeline. By 2014, 3 billion gallons moved by rail in the state.

Frequently the oil in the tank cars is Bakken crude from North Dakota, which is particularly volatile and can seep into groundwater quicker than other types of crude. But diluted bitumen from the Canadian tar sands also is being transported. Under certain conditions, the bitumen can become submerged when spilled into water, greatly complicating its cleanup, the Ecology Department said.

While the new rules should be in place sooner than first expected, their implementation will be phased in over one to two years for some railroads. As part of the legislation passed last year, the state has hired more rail inspectors for track inspections and is assisting communities in purchasing spill response equipment. More equipment is to be cached along rail routes to improve response times to spills and fires.

Oregon, where the spill and fire occurred, like Washington, has instituted its own oil safety measures, including the creation of a new office under the state fire marshal to plan oil spill and fire response.

And while all that will do much to improve the safe transportation of oil and other petroleum, more work and oversight is needed, particularly on the federal side.

The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered new rules last year to require more robust tank cars and phase out old DOT-111 cars by 2020. The newer cars that meet the standard, CPC-1232s, aren’t foolproof, however. The cars that erupted in flames Friday were CPC-1232s.

In some instances, the oil companies, which are typically responsible for the tank cars, have exceeded the federal standard with a newer car, called DOT-120, which have thicker tank walls, shields at the tank heads, insulation and improved relief valves. Last year, Tesoro, which operates an Anacortes refinery, announced it had added 210 DOT-120 cars to its fleet. But with an estimated 400,000 rail cars in the nation, and increasing demand to feed refineries and an export market now allowed by Congress, the older cars can’t be replaced soon enough.

Two previous proposals by Northwest senators deserve further consideration. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, last year called for rules that would require the volatile gases contained in Bakken crude be removed before being transported by rail. And Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, proposed charging a fee for use of the older tank cars but providing a tax break for use of the newer cars, a two-path incentive to speed the cars’ replacement.

As concerning as it was, the fire and spill in Mosier could have been far worse. But it’s timing, with the hope that it will refocus attention on the need for greater safety and notification, may have been fortunate.

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