Citizen oil-train spotters challenge railroad secrecy

Repost from The Herald, Everett, Washington
[Editor: Interesting project.  For more detail, see Green News for Snohomish County.  – RS]

Citizen oil-train spotters challenge railroad secrecy

By Jerry Cornfield, June 12, 2014
A placard with the number 1267 indicates that a tank car along West Marine View Drive in Everett carries crude oil.
A placard with the number 1267 indicates that a tank car along West Marine View Drive in Everett carries crude oil. Mark Mulligan / The Herald

OLYMPIA — BNSF Railway doesn’t want civilians to know how often it transports large shipments of Bakken crude oil through Snohomish County, but a mathematician from Everett can give you a pretty good estimate.

Dean Smith, 71, a retired researcher for a federal agency, isn’t on the “need-to-know” list, but he’s got a darn good idea of the frequency and routes of oil trains.

He organized the Snohomish County Train Watch, and he and 29 volunteers monitored train traffic in Edmonds, Everett and Marysville for a week in April. Crude-oil tank cars can be identified by their red, diamond-shaped hazardous-material placards that bear the number 1267.

They tried to keep track around the clock but missed a few shifts. Even so, they counted 16 shipments of oil and 20 of coal, Smith said. They also tallied another 96 trains, including those of Amtrak, the Sounder commuter run between Seattle and Everett and other freight during the period.

Smith presented the results at a meeting Monday and posted them online. He’ll share them with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., in a meeting Friday.

“What motivated me was noticing the oil trains. I saw them and thought, ‘What’s going on?’” he said.

Three railroads in the state insist what’s going on should be released only to emergency responders and not the general public. State officials disagree and consider the reports to be public records but aren’t releasing them yet.

BNSF and the two other railroads have complied with a federal order and given the state government an idea of the volume, frequency and routes along which they move the highly flammable North Dakota crude in Washington.

But the BNSF, Tacoma Rail and the Portland and Western Railroad have until the end of next of week to obtain a court order preventing disclosure. If they don’t, the state will hand over records to those requesting them, including The Herald.

“We continue and will continue to work with the railroads to address their concerns and still meet the requirements of the state’s Public Records Act,” said Karina Shagren, spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Division.

The shipment of crude oil by rail has greatly increased in recent years, and notable serious accidents in the U.S. and Canada, including a deadly crash in Quebec, have drawn attention to tank-car safety. Such incidents prompted the federal rule requiring railroads to disclose information about shipments.

The state Department of Ecology estimates Bakken crude shipments by rail in Washington rose from zero barrels in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels in 2013.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday said he wants state agencies to move more swiftly to assess the risks to public safety posed by the increasing number of oil trains traveling through Washington.

Inslee directed the Department of Ecology to analyze the risk of accidents along rail lines, compare the danger of Bakken crude to other types of crude and identify any gaps in the state’s ability to prevent and respond to oil spills from rail tank cars.

These issues are already getting a look as part of a $300,000 study of oil transportation approved by state lawmakers earlier this year. Work on that report will begin this month, and findings due to Inslee and lawmakers in December.

Inslee’s directive seeks some recommendations by Oct. 1, when he will be in the midst of drafting his next state budget proposal.

“It speeds up certain parts of that analysis,” said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith. “There is a lot of increased scrutiny on oil shipments. The public is demanding some answers. The sooner we get the information, the sooner we can act.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation in May ordered railroads carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude in a single train – about 35 tank cars – to tell state authorities how many such shipments they expect to move through each county each week and on what routes. They were not required to provide the days and times of the shipments.

BNSF Railway, the dominant carrier north of Seattle and to points east, averages one-and-a-half to two trains loaded with Bakken going to “facilities in the Pacific Northwest in a 24-hour period,” according to company spokesman Gus Melonas.

He wouldn’t reveal how much oil those trains carry to refineries in Anacortes and Ferndale or which routes they travel.

“BNSF believes this type of shipment data is considered security-sensitive and confidential, intended for people who have ‘a need to know’ for such information, such as first responders and emergency planners,” Melonas told The Herald in an email.

Lyn Gross, director of the Emergency Services Coordinating Agency in Snohomish County, is one of those with a need to know and has received the information.

She declined to share details but said what she read didn’t incite her to consider revising the group’s handling of hazardous-material incidents. Her agency handles emergency management for 10 cities in south Snohomish County.

“It doesn’t really change much for us. It gives us more of an awareness of how much of this product is moving through our area that we didn’t know about before,” said Gross, who forwarded copies of the data to the member cities. “We’re going to respond like we would for any hazardous materials incident involving a train.”

Regular citizen Smith wants to repeat the train-watching exercise every two to three months to keep city, county and state leaders informed. He said he hopes that will spur a critical examination of the need for changes in emergency response plans.

Snohomish County residents are not the only ones tracking trains. The Vancouver Action Network is keeping watch and spreading data and photos through online sites and social media. Oil train activists are planning a statewide summit in Olympia in August.

Train monitoring is on the rise because rail transport of all types of crude oil, including Bakken, is multiplying in Washington. Until the federal order took effect last week, railroads did not need to tell anyone about the amount of Bakken they were taking to refineries in Whatcom and Pierce counties.

Tacoma Rail estimated that each week it runs three unit trains of 90 to 120 railroad tank cars apiece, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Herald. Those trains are traveling on tracks in and around the Tacoma Rail train yard in Pierce County.

Union Pacific, which doesn’t have a large presence in Western Washington, told the state it has nothing to report.

That doesn’t mean the Union Pacific isn’t shipping Bakken crude to locations in Washington — only that it isn’t handling quantities large enough to be subject to disclosure, Shagren said.

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    KRON4 Report: controversial Benicia proposal, new state regulations, big money

    Repost from KRON4 News, San Francisco
    [Editor: This video includes an excellent interview with Earth Justice’s Suma Peesapati, who focuses attention on California’s poorly maintained bridges and their lack of adequate inspections.   The report concludes with mention of a possible new 6.5 cent California tax on the oil companies for every barrel of oil imported into the state.  – RS]

    VIDEO: Benicia’s Crude-By-Rail Project Prompts Safety Concerns

    By Mario Sevilla  |  Wed Jun 11th, 2014

    benicia

    BENICIA (KRON) — Several refineries in California are preparing to receive crude oil by rail but it is a hugely controversial idea. KRON 4 Jeff Bush is live in Benicia near one of the plants which will receive crude by rail…

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      Washington Governor Inslee orders spill response plan

      Repost from The Columbian

      Inslee issues oil train directive

      Dept. of Ecology ordered to develop spill response plan
      By Lauren Dake, June 12, 2014
      An oil train travels through downtown Vancouver in April. According to state estimates, crude oil shipments in Washington went from zero in 2011 to 17 million barrels in 2013. (Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)

      Gov. Jay Inslee directed state agencies Thursday to tackle mounting public safety concerns and develop an oil spill response plan as train traffic continues to increase, particularly in Southwest Washington.

      He announced the directive at a meeting of The Columbian’s editorial board in Vancouver.

      “The Pacific Northwest is experiencing rapid changes in how crude oil is moving through rail corridors and over Washington waters, creating new safety and environmental concerns,” the directive reads.

      The governor asked the Department of Ecology to work with other state agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration and tribal governments to “identify data and information gaps that hinder improvements in public safety and spill prevention and response.”

      Specifically, the governor’s directive asks agencies to:

      • Characterize risk of accidents along rail lines.
      • Review state and federal laws and rules with respect to rail safety and identify regulatory gaps.
      • Assess the relative risk of Bakken crude with respect to other forms of crude oil.
      • Identify data and information gaps that hinder improvements in public safety and spill prevention and response.
      • Begin development of spill response plans for impacted counties.
      • Identify potential actions that can be coordinated with neighboring states and British Columbia.
      • Identify, prioritize, and estimate costs for state actions that will improve public safety and spill prevention and response.

      He set an Oct. 1 deadline for Ecology to respond.

      He also said he’ll reach out to other states to develop coordinated oil transportation safety and spill response plans, and pledged to ask the 2015-17 Legislature for money for oil train safety.

      The directive comes as the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is reviewing an application by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil shipping terminal at the Port of Vancouver. Bakken crude would arrive at Vancouver by train from North Dakota and leave by ship or barge via the Columbia River.

      As governor, Inslee will have the final say on the Tesoro-Savage permit. Inslee said he had to be “very guarded” in his comments about the oil terminal while the review is happening. “We will make the right decision at the right time,” he said.

      “I can tell you we have very serious concerns with safety associated with oil trains,” he said.

      The governor said he would be “heavily invested in understanding the full ramifications” and plans to be as well-versed as anyone in the state on the topic.

      Schools and bridges

      The interview was wide-ranging; Inslee also talked about the need to close tax loopholes in order to find additional revenue to fund the state’s public schools.

      “We have a sort of Swiss-cheese tax code because some lobbyists have been successful in getting some special favors over the decades,” Inslee said. “Some of those make sense … They are not uniformly virtuous.”

      In this coming legislative session, he said, he will push lawmakers to increase the state’s minimum wage.

      “I do believe minimum wage is one of the tools that are useful to give working people a fair break,” he said.

      And, he said, the state continues to have a lot of “unmet needs” when it comes to transportation.

      “Many of them are here (in Southwest Washington), the (Columbia River Crossing) just being one of them. We know there are other needs as well,” Inslee said.

      Inslee said once the region has “legislators that really want to find a solution for Southwest Washington,” the area would be better represented in any transportation package.

      Inslee was asked about Republican efforts to organize a new bistate bridge coalition. He said the only thing he’s heard is “there have been some discussions.”

      It’s an effort spearheaded by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas. Yet another bridge plan is being promoted by Republican County Commissioner David Madore, who vows to open his bridge to traffic in five years.

      “The last bridge took, I think, 10 to 13 years to get all the permitting done,” Inslee said. “This is an arduous, lengthy, multijurisdictional process … There might be 1,000 other plans.”

      A new bridge is “pivotal to the entire state” and he planned to spend his day in Vancouver talking to “people of good faith and open minds” to discuss the best way to move forward.

      The first-term Democrat spent all day Thursday in Vancouver. He presented awards to state Department of Transportation employees, and visited a local technology firm, Smith-Root, that is expanding. Thursday evening he gave the commencement address at the Washington School for the Deaf’s graduation ceremony.

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