Tag Archives: Washington Department of Ecology

Washington, Oregon officials caught by surprise: unit trains of tar sands moving through NW and CA

Repost from Oregon Public Broadcasting
[Editor: Significant quote for us in California: “The trains originate in Alberta, moving through Idaho to Washington. From there, some are bound for refining in Western Washington and others travel along the Columbia River into Portland and south into California.”  – RS]

Big Trainloads Of Tar Sands Crude Now Rolling Through NW

By Tony Schick, Feb. 9, 2015
Since 2012 Union Pacific has been moving oil through Oregon on mixed freight trains. In late 2014, the railroad began moving several mile-long trains of crude oil per month through the Northwest.
Since 2012 Union Pacific has been moving oil through Oregon on mixed freight trains. In late 2014, the railroad began moving several mile-long trains of crude oil per month through the Northwest. Kool Cats Photography / flickr

Trains carrying mass loads of heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar sands have begun moving through the Northwest, creating the potential for an oil spill in parts of Oregon and Washington where environmental agencies have no response plans or equipment in place.

Union Pacific now moves between seven and 10 of these mile-long trains of Canadian crude per month through Northwest states, according to railroad spokesman Aaron Hunt. They can carry more than a million gallons of oil.

The trains originate in Alberta, moving through Idaho to Washington. From there, some are bound for refining in Western Washington and others travel along the Columbia River into Portland and south into California.

The seven to 10 monthly trains represents a big  increase over Union Pacific trains that had  previously been hauling mixed freight that included oil tank cars. The mile-long “unit trains” began in late November, according to the railroad, but spill planners at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality and Washington’s Department of Ecology didn’t learn of the new shipments until late January and early February, respectively.

Both agencies, along with emergency responders and rail safety inspectors, were previously caught unprepared in 2013 when shipments of sweet light crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields started moving through the region.

Railroads are required to notify states about oil shipments larger than one million gallons under an emergency order from the federal Department of Transportation. The order was filed in response to national concerns about local fire departments being caught unaware or kept in the dark when these “rolling pipelines” were passing through their jurisdictions.

That order applies only to Bakken crude; shipments from Canada are exempt. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have called on the federal DOT to expand its regulation to include all shipments, with the aim of avoiding a situation like mile-long trains of tar sands crude moving without knowledge from the agencies tasked with oil spill cleanup.

“It is unacceptable that volatile tar sands oil has been moving through our communities for months and yet Oregon officials only found out about it last week,” Wyden said in a statement released to OPB/EarthFix. “This apparent lack of communication with state officials responsible for Oregonians’ health and safety is exactly why I have been pushing for an iron-clad rule to ensure first-responders in our communities are notified about these oil trains.”

Officials in Oregon and Washington said they lack the resources and authority for adequate spill planning along rail corridors. Rail lines touch more than a hundred watersheds in Oregon and cross more than a thousand water bodies in Washington.

Unlike plans for marine transports and storage facilities, plans for who responds, how and with what equipment are lacking in Oregon and Washington when it comes to rivers and lakes.

“We will respond, but our response won’t be as effective as it would be with the facilities where we’ve reviewed their plans, we know what they contain,” said Bruce Gilles, emergency response program manager at Oregon’s DEQ.

Should a train full of tar sand oil spill today, response teams will be “going in somewhat blind,” and that means they won’t be able to work as quickly as they should, Gilles said.

“You’re going to lose time, and that time translates into increased environmental damage and costs to clean up,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

David Byers, response manager for Washington’s Department of Ecology, said the state has begun filling the regional gaps where it lacks response plans, but the effort will take years.

Byers said tar sands crude presents many cleanup challenges the state’s never handled before.

Bitumen is a hydrocarbon extracted from Alberta’s tar sands. It’s too thick to be transported like conventional crude. It’s either refined into a synthetic crude — making it more like conventional crude oil —  or combined with additives that give it a more liquid consistency.

A heavy tar-like substance, bitumen can sink when it hits water. It’s also stickier, meaning it’s tougher to remove from wherever it spills. That’s what happened when a pipeline burst and spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The cleanup cost exceeded $1 billion.

Frequent rain and fast-moving rivers in the Northwest mean a lot of sediment that oil can stick to, further complicating cleanup.

Byers and Gilles say they have no way of knowing what specific type of crude is in a given oil tanker car. Knowing that they’re dealing with a tar sand crude oil spill would dramatically influence their response.

“It’s much harder to clean up on the bottom of a river bed,” Byers said. “Or if it sinks in, for example, Puget Sound, it’s going to be more difficult to clean up, and even more challenging for us to even locate and detect where the oil has migrated to.”

It wouldn’t just be up to Oregon or Washington officials to handle spill-response duties if an oil train derailed in their state. Union Pacific has 30 hazardous materials responders across its 32,000 mile network and relies on private contractors for handling spill incidents.

“This team of experts directs training, preparation and response for any type of accident involving hazardous materials,” spokesman Aaron Hunt said in an email. “We move hazardous materials on behalf of our customers because it is our job.”


    Washington Gov. Inslee eyeing a tax on oil shipments arriving by rail

    Repost from Crosscut.com, Seattle, WA

    Inslee is eyeing a tax on oil shipments arriving by rail

    His measure could also target pipeline shipments.
    By John Stang, December 6, 2014
    Tanker cars can carry oil or LPG.
    Tanker cars can carry oil or LPG. Paul K. Anderson, Chuckanut Conservancy

    The Inslee administration’s leaders expect to introduce a bill to extend Washington’s 5-cents-a-barrel oil tax to pipelines and railroad oil cars.

    Currently, the tax on the 42-gallon barrels applies only to oil arriving in Washington by ship. Dale Jensen, director of the Washington Department of Ecology’s oil spill program, briefed the House Environment Committee on the matter Friday.

    Officials are also considering the possibility of increasing the current 5-cents-a-barrel tax on oil arriving in the state. Part of the money goes to oil spill prevention and response programs across the state. The administration has not yet calculated how much money will be needed in upcoming years, meaning it has also not decided yet whether to increase the five-cents tax or keep it intact, Jensen said.

    Extending the tax to oil railcars and pipelines reflects the shrinking of the amount of oil arriving in Washington by ship, while pipeline traffic and rail oil traffic are increasing, Jensen said.

    In 2003, 91 percent of the oil going to Washington’s refineries came by ship, with 9 percent arriving by pipeline, and none arriving by rail. In 2013, 67.4 percent arrived in Washington by ship, 24.2 percent by pipeline and 8.4 percent by railroad.

    A typical tanker railcar holds 29,200 gallons. Washington’s five refineries process roughly 24.3 million gallons of crude oil a day, and have the capacity of processing 26.5 million gallons daily. At 42 gallons per barrel, that translates to approximately $34.75 in tax per tanker car or roughly $28,900 per day for the amount of imported oil to be refined in Washington.

    In the 2014 legislative sessions, Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina — who retired this year and was the leader of the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus at that time — introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the oil tax to railroad oil cars, but not pipelines. With support from both parties, the Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended passage on March 10. But that bill did not make it to a full floor vote by the time the 2014 session ended on March 13.

    Frank Holmes, representing the Western States Petroleum Association, said the organization supported Tom’s 2014 bill, which the association membership believed accurately reflected Washington’s oil traffic shifting from ship to rail. However, the association opposes installing the tax on pipeline oil. Holmes said Washington’s pipelines have had an excellent safety record during the past 50 years.

    All this unfolds as Gov. Jay Inslee is digesting a draft state report on factors to consider on designing legislation to improve oil train safety in Washington. In the Legislature’s 2014 session, Democrats and Republicans introduced somewhat similar oil train emergency prevention and response bills, including requirements that oil companies and railroads provide advance information on each oil train to emergency agencies. But the two sides could not get past one major point. The Democrats wanted to make the volumes and chemical compositions of the oil in each upcoming train available to the public. The Republicans were against that provision, arguing it would expose proprietary corporate secrets.

    Jensen speculated that Inslee may push for full public disclosure of the oil train information.



      Washington State report on oil train safety: new risks, more to do

      Repost from BismarckTribune.com, Bakken Breakout

      Study: more to do as oil trains pose new risks

      December 02, 2014, PHUONG LE, Associated Press

      SEATTLE — The spike in crude oil shipments by rail in Washington is creating new potential risks and will require increased safety measures and improved oil spill response and prevention, according to a state study delivered to lawmakers.

      Even as more trains carry volatile shipments of crude oil into the state, nearly 60 percent of first responders said they don’t have sufficient training or resources to handle a train derailment accompanied by a fire.

      The draft report delivered on Monday makes a dozen key recommendations to the Legislature for the upcoming two-year budget, including more training for first responders, more railroad inspectors and ensuring that those who transport oil can pay for cleanup.

      Some actions don’t require money, but the others could total more than $14 million.

      The report also outlines the environmental and safety risks from oil transport, many of which could be mitigated with additional federal and state resources.

      Derailments of oil trains have caused explosions in several states and Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway train exploded in the city of Lac-Megantic in July 2013.

      In Washington, crude oil shipments went from zero in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013, and could reach nearly 3 billion gallons by the end of this year or in 2015, the report said.

      As many as 19 mile-long trains carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and Montana pass through the state weekly. Nearly 3 million people live in 93 cities and towns on or near these routes, posing potential public safety, health and environmental risks, the report said.

      One train typically has about 100 rail cars and carries about 3 million gallons of oil. Some trains head south to Oregon and California without stopping to transfer oil in Washington. Others deliver oil to Washington facilities.

      By 2020, the number of trains could grow to 137 a week if all proposed crude-by-rail terminals, including projects in Longview and Grays Harbor are built out and oil continues to be exported through the state, the report said.

      Those proposed terminals could also bring more tanker and tug and barge traffic in the Columbia River and Grays Harbor area, as well as along the coast.

      BP Cherry Point Refinery in Puget Sound is currently receiving Bakken crude oil deliveries from tug-barges from the Columbia River.

      The report also raises concerns about diluted bitumen, which comes mostly from Alberta oil sands and has been shipped into the state for years. But shipments are increasing. Bitumen raises spill response challenges because it may sink or submerge in water if spilled, making recovery of the oil difficult, the report said.

      The Department of Ecology, the Utilities and Transportation Commission and the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division worked on the report.