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Seattle: More than 750 turn out for meeting on oil-train study

Repost from The Seattle Times

More than 750 people turn out for meeting on oil-train study

Hundreds of people concerned about the increasing number of oil trains traversing the state came to a Thursday evening meeting in Olympia to comment on the preliminary findings of a state study on oil-train safety and spill response.
By Hal Bernton, October 30, 2014

State officials are proposing more funding and more regulatory authority to step up oversight of the surging numbers of oil trains carrying crude through Washington, and to better prepare for any possible spills.

The proposals are included in the preliminary findings of a state Department of Ecology study, which was reviewed at a Thursday evening meeting that drew more than 750 people, the vast majority of whom are opposed to increased oil train traffic in the state.

The report — in an interim form — is scheduled to be delivered to Gov. Jay Inslee in December. The draft findings already are spurring state agencies to prepare legislation, according to Lisa Copeland, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman.

The report includes a dozen measures that could be taken up by the Legislature to try to improve safety and spill response. They include modifying the railroad regulatory-fee structure so that more rail inspectors are hired, providing new state authority to monitor the safety of rail crossings on private roads and launching a new state grant program to finance firefighting equipment.

The report is being prepared by a team of consultants along with the state Ecology Department, Utilities and Transportation Commission and other state agencies. It examines the public health, safety and environmental risks posed by the movement of crude oil by rail as well as by vessel through Washington waters.

The oil trains moving through Washington reflect a fundamental shift in sourcing of Pacific Northwest oil as Alaska North Slope crude production declines and the Bakken fields of North Dakota boom.

In 2011, almost no oil trains traversed Washington.

Now, state officials say, some 19 trains carry crude across the state each week. Over a year’s time, those trains move some 2.87 billion gallons of oil. After they unload their crude, some of the Bakken oil is transported by tug and barge to Puget Sound-area refineries

In the aftermath of a July 6, 2013, oil-train derailment and explosion in Canada that killed 47 people, crude trains have raised public concern and prompted state officials in Washington and elsewhere to increase scrutiny of such trains.

There were eight other “notable crude oil derailments” in North America in 2013 and 2014, and the report says that Bakken crude “may present significant risks with respect to public safety due to its higher volatility and flammability.”

By 2020, in Washington, the crude-oil traffic through the state could more than triple to 59 trains a week if expansion plans for terminals are actually completed,

“We felt it was important to lay out what is in the realm of the possible, “ said Scott Ferguson, a Department of Ecology official who has assisted with the report.

The increasing numbers of oil trains have caused plenty of unease to roil through the state. Some 200 people signed up to speak Thursday evening, and Department of Ecology officials listened to hours of passionate testimony from people upset about tanker cars filled with crude.

Those who testified spoke about the potential for spills that could foul tribal fisheries in the Columbia River, drinking water aquifers for Olympia and sensitive coastal waters near Bellingham.

They talked about the potential for exploding tanker cars that would kill people living in a “blast zone” along the rail lines.

Many were veterans of the movement to try to block development of coal terminals in Washington state, wearing red shirts that declared “Power Past Coal.” They frequently waved signs that declared oil and coal are bad for Washington.

“Our state is at a crossroads with proposed increases in crude oil and coal transportation, testified Kathryn Chudy, a therapist who lives in Vancouver, Wash. “Adding more crude oil and coal trains to this risk jeopardizes their safety, and can in no way be justified.”

Frank Gordon, a Grays Harbor County Commissioner, fears what an oil spill would do to the salmon runs in his area and said he opposes a proposal to develop a new oil terminal at Hoquiam.

“We don’t need oil trains coming to Grays Harbor. It’s just not worthwhile,” Gordon said.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, in an interview before the hearing, said that BNSF has a strong safety record in transporting crude oil by rail.

He said that BNSF has assisted with firefighter training and taken other steps to improve safety. To help reduce the risks of a derailments, for example, the crude oil trains move at speeds of less than 20 miles an hour through Seattle and Vancouver, Wash.

“We have invested nearly $500 million in the past three years in track upgrades in Washington,” Melonas said

BNSF also is focusing on crew compliance with railway rules, as well as inspections to improve safety as trains move along the rails.

“As a common carrier we are obligated to move all types of freight,” Melonas said. “We don’t control what we haul, but we control how we haul it.”

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