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Originally published Thursday, February 27, 2014 at 4:49 PM

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Put oil transport safety legislation back on track

Local communities want information about rail shipments of oil so they can revise local public safety plans. Deadlines loom, and the Senate stalls.


Times editorial columnist

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Hard to imagine the state Legislature will not act to protect Washington residents from the known hazards of increased oil shipments by rail.

The state House of Representatives passed HB 2347 to help get basic information to public-safety agencies so they can prepare for the worst. As deadlines loom in Olympia, the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee seems oblivious.

In a time when communities are literally being blown apart, the risks are not only painfully apparent, they are also being acknowledged by those with vested interests. Yes, things are that bad.

After a series of lethal disasters in 2013 and another derailment in early 2014, the largest oil carriers endorsed eight voluntary measures, the federal Department of Transportation announced.

The list includes slower speeds through some cities, more track inspections and adding more brakes on trains. The New York Times reports the agreements do not require the railroads to reroute hazardous materials away from heavily populated or environmentally sensitive areas.

The Obama administration is looking at rules to phase out older tank cars, which are not up to the task of carrying flammable loads of Bakken formation light crude oil from North Dakota and Montana.

More change is sought and contemplated, but not in a uniform, predictable fashion with government oversight.

Still, BNSF Railway, the largest transporter of crude oil, announced last week it is ordering 5,000 new crude oil-tank cars to meet higher, voluntary standards.

Here in Washington, local officials are asking Olympia for help to protect their residents. Cities, including Spokane and Bellingham, have adopted resolutions seeking more rail traffic information, oil-tank car safety and broader environmental reviews.

On Feb. 3, the Spokane City Council unanimously adopted a resolution asking for more state and federal review of oil transport by rail, City Council President Ben Stuckart said in a telephone call Wednesday.

The best available information the city had was that one train per day of the more flammable Bakken crude passed through Spokane. Stuckart said that is expected to increase to 11 trains per day, or 22 with round trips.

Add that to the coal trains that would pass through Spokane on the way to proposed Western Washington terminals for shipments to China.

Stuckart said the agricultural region he lives in depends on rail service during peak crop times. The concern is coal and oil traffic will overwhelm rail capacity to the detriment of the local economy.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref testified in Olympia this session about Spokane’s concerns and the need for state legislation.

Stuckart has talked with Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the Planning Land Use and Sustainability committee. He also drafted a resolution.

O’Brien told me on Tuesday his resolution will go before the full committee March 4, and be presented to the Seattle City Council on March 10.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray supports the resolution that seeks more information about volumes, types of petroleum products, routes and frequency of transport.

The resolution also calls for more federal oversight, and voluntary reductions in oil shipments until public-safety and environmental standards are improved. And it launches updates of local emergency response plans.

All eyes turn back toward Olympia. It is hard to imagine the state Senate cannot endorse the basic safety preparedness of the House-passed legislation. Money is even in the House budget to make it work.

The measure was amended to defer regulatory rule-making until oil terminals are permitted, but it seeks what every municipality along the rail lines want: more information for public safety.

Legislative deadlines could force some creative legislating. Do it. Communities need information. Senators are tossing around ideas when there is a House bill to act on.

After tragedies in Quebec, North Dakota, Alabama, and a near tragedy in New Brunswick, the hazards are known. Help local communities protect themselves.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com



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