Category Archives: Washington State

Washington State: two competing bills to strengthen oil train safety

Repost from / Under The Dome, Seattle WA

Oil train safety draws quick attention in Olympia

A Republican proposal has already gotten a hearing, and a Democratic one is ready to roll.

By John Stang, January 15, 2015
Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay.
Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay. Bill Lucia

Two competing oil-train safety bills have come into quick play in the Washington Senate.

A Republican measure, proposed by Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, received a hearing on Thursday before the Senate Environment, Energy & Telecommunications Committee, which he chairs. Also on Thursday, Democratic Sens. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge Island and Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island introduced a bill to cover what Gov. Jay Inslee wants to do.

A preliminary Washington Department of Ecology study, released late last year, said that rapid increases in the amount of oil moving by rail in the state require new measures to protect the public and the environment.

Both bills increase per-barrel oil taxes to cover emergency response and planning expenses. Rolfes’ bill would impose charges on both crude and refined oil, while Ericksen’s addresses solely crude oil. Rolfes’ bill requires advance notice to the state of crude and refined oil going by rail, pipe or ship. Ericksen’s bill does not have those provisions.

Ericksen’s bill pays considerable attention to mapping out oil-emergency response plans by region across the state. And the Ericksen measure has more detailed provisions about providing state grants to emergency-service responders.

Thursday’s hearing had railroad, port and oil representatives supporting Ericksen’s bill, while environmental groups contended it did not go far enough.

Bruce Swisher of the Sierra Club argued that the bills must make information about upcoming oil train shipments available to the public as well as emergency departments. “The communities, not just the first responders, need transparency about what goes through their communities,” Swisher said.

Johan Hellman, representing the BNSF Railroad, said the company spent $125 million on track and crossing upgrades in Washington in 2013 and another $235 million in 2014. The railroad has also trained roughly 4,000 first responders in Washington on dealing with train derailments, he said.

In a statement, Ericksen said, “We’re trying to identify the gaps in existing programs and fill them.”

In 2013 and 2014, the United States had four oil train accidents that produced fires — one in North Dakota, one in West Virginia and two in New England. Closer to home, three 29,200-gallon oil cars on a slow-moving train derailed without any spills or fire beneath Seattle’s Magnolia Bridge last July. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

The report by experts hired by the state Ecology Department mapped out the oil transportation situation in Washington and the United States. Nationally, the number of rail cars transporting crude oil grew from 9,500 in 2008 to 415,000 carloads in 2013. In 2013, 8.4 percent of oil arriving at Washington’s five refineries came by rail, although the report indicates that the volume of oil shipped by rail to the refineries here was insignificant until 2011.

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Washington Governor Inslee says state will act on oil trains

Repost from The Olympian, Olympia Washington

Inslee says state will act on oil trains

By Andy Hobbs, November 21, 2014
Representatives from Washington and Oregon gather at Olympia City Hall for the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance summit on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. TONY OVERMAN

The number of oil trains running across Washington is unacceptable, and the Legislature will consider bills in the upcoming session that mandate advance notification of oil shipments by rail as well as more funding for railroad crossings and emergency response training, Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday.

King County Executive Dow Constantine added that oil companies are raking in profits while “the rest of us are picking up the costs.”

“Those who are profiting should shoulder the financial burden,” Constantine said.

They were speaking to the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance that met Friday at Olympia City Hall to address the surge of oil and coal trains passing through Washington.

The alliance is a coalition of local, state and tribal leaders from the Northwest who say the trains threaten the environment, economy and public safety.

As shipments of oil increase in the Puget Sound region, so does the likelihood for spills and accidents. The Department of Ecology reports that 19 fully loaded oil trains crisscross the state every week, with the number expected to reach 59 oil trains if current refinery proposals are approved. Each train hauls about 3 million gallons of crude oil in 100 tanker cars. Between 11 and 16 trains pass through rural and suburban areas of Thurston and Pierce counties every week, according to reports from BNSF Railway.

Participants in Friday’s meeting included elected officials from across the state along with Oregon and Canada.

“It is clear that we have to take significant action including being better prepared to handle an oil train explosion or large scale spill,” Inslee said.

Although the federal government is the main regulator of the railroads, Inslee said there are some actions the state can take now, such as lowering speed limits of the trains.

“We don’t want vehicles speeding through school zones, and we shouldn’t let oil trains speed through Washington cities,” said Inslee, noting that changes in state permits are at least a year away.

Friday’s meeting included a detailed report on the coal industry by Tom Sanzillo, finance director of the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis. Sanzillo encouraged states and cities to keep putting pressure on the coal industry, which has seen demand and prices decline worldwide in the past few years.

“The U.S. coal industry is shrinking,” said Sanzillo, adding that the industry needs “robust growth” to meet its potential and compete in the global market despite record demand for coal by nations like China. “Hooking your wagon to the coal industry is not a particularly promising outlook right now.”

At the local level, Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said the City Council will seek a resolution next week to add Olympia to the list of cities that oppose the increase in crude oil transport.

“We are at a crossroads,” Buxbaum said Friday. “We could see up to 60 trains a day and 4,000 supertankers in our waters.”

As for the coal issue, Buxbaum recently co-authored a guest column titled “You might be surprised by Puget Sound Energy’s coal power supply” that ran Nov. 19 in The Seattle Times. Also signing the article were Bainbridge Island Mayor Anne Blair and Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett, and all three mayors’ respective city councils endorsed it.

The article urges Puget Sound Energy to take immediate action and plan for a “post-coal future.” About one-third of PSE’s power supply comes from coal that’s shipped from out of state, according to the article. The mayors also cite Gov. Inslee’s recent executive order to reduce pollution and transition away from coal power.

“The bottom line is that we don’t need coal,” the article states. “The potential is there for Washington to meet its energy needs with efficiency programs, wind, solar and other technologies. We just need to rise to the occasion.”


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NW states poll: residents support oil trains, but don’t know much about them

Repost from (Walowa County, WA)
[Editor: Significant quote: “Eric de Place, policy director for the Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, draws a connection between how much people know about oil trains and how much they support such projects….’What we’ve seen so far is that the more people know about these projects, the less they like them,’ De Place said.”  – RS]

Poll: Most Northwest Residents Support Oil Trains But Don’t Know Much About The Issue

July 9, 2014, Tony Schick, Cassandra Profita, EarthFix

A 56-percent majority of Northwest residents support the transportation of oil by rail to reach West Coast refineries, with the refined oil being used for domestic purposes, according to a new DHM Research poll for EarthFix.

However, a 54-percent majority said they have heard or read little or nothing about oil trains.

The poll surveyed 1,200 residents across the Northwest 400 each in Oregon, Washington and Idaho from June 25-30. The margin of error for each state’s results was 4.9 percent. the three-state regional results had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

Several oil-by-rail projects across the region have raised safety and environmental concerns, and opponent groups are working to stop some projects from moving forward. Oil train derailments in the U.S. have caused explosions and fires in the past year, and one derailment in Canada killed 47 people.

But most of the Northwest residents polled disagreed with opponents who argue that the risks of transporting oil by rail are too high. Only 32 percent of respondents agreed that oil-by-rail shipments should be stopped to protect public safety and the environment. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they disagreed and 15 percent said they don’t know.

John Horvick, vice president and director of research for DHM, said the poll shows the most people aren’t opposed to the idea of oil trains.

“At least, they’re not opposed,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a ton of enthusiasm necessarily.”

A majority of respondents 66 percent said railroads have good safety records and will do their best to prevent accidents and spills when transporting oil by train.

“For the most part, people overwhelmingly thought the railroads can be trusted to handle this,” Horvick said.

Statistically speaking, major derailments or collisions on railroads are rare. But a recent EarthFix story revealed many within the railroad industry have concerns about railroads’ commitments to safety.

Most people polled said they hold businesses in the oil industry as well as elected officials and governments responsible for preventing oil train accidents and spills. While 88 percent said businesses in the oil industry need to prevent accidents and spills, 73 percent said elected officials and others in government need to prevent accidents and spills.

At the Port of St. Helens industrial park in Clatskanie, Oregon — the most frequent destination for oil trains through Oregon accepting three per week — terminal owner Global Partners has announced it will only accept oil in newer model tank cars with added armor. The vast majority of tank cars in use today are an older model long known to be prone to punctures.

Patrick Trapp, executive director at the Port of St. Helens, said the crude by rail project as helped the port maintain roughly 50 jobs, a significant number for Columbia County, and carries the potential for 30 more. He also said the port favors handling domestic oil headed to a West Coast refinery.

“This is their business — they want it to be done safely. They expect it to be done safely,” Trapp said. “I can’t speak for other projects across the state or the region, but for our area here it’s been going on for about a year and a half now and they’ve been doing it very responsibly, very methodically.”

DHM Research poll results also show many people in the Northwest aren’t following the issue of oil train safety. The survey asked people how much they’ve heard or read about oil trains in their state. Across the region, 27 percent residents said “nothing” while another 27 percent said “not much.”

Horvick said that’s not surprising.

“For most people across the Northwest region, this isn’t something that’s happening in their backyard,” he said. “For many people who aren’t living in communities with trains passing through this may be out of sight, out of mind.”

Eric de Place, policy director for the Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, draws a connection between how much people know about oil trains and how much they support such projects.

“What we’ve seen so far is that the more people know about these projects, the less they like them,” De Place said. He said public opinion polls he’s seen tend to show support wanes as the public becomes more informed. “Right now we’re still in a place where most people haven’t heard of the projects or don’t really understand the dynamics around them.”

The Sightline Institute has examined crude by rail extensively in the Northwest, and has been critical of many projects. An analysis by the institute in May showed the Northwest averages nine freight train derailments per month, most of them minor.

De Place pointed out that survey respondents specifically supported crude by rail if the oil is being used for domestic purposes, which may not be the case once it reaches refineries. Crude oil exports have been banned for 40 years, but many in Congress have been calling for an end to the ban, which was recently loosened. In 2011, the U.S. exported more petroleum product such as gasoline and diesel than it imported for the first time since 1949.

The poll also found more people support restricting information about oil train routes to regulators and first responders rather than releasing it to the public.

That information became the subject of a transparency debate after the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads to provide it to states. Railroads then asked states for nondisclosure agreements. Oregon and Washington both eventually made the information available free of charge after receiving several public records requests. Some states remain undecided.

When asked whether the public should know for the safety of the community when oil is being shipped on trains through their area, only 34 percent of residents said yes. When asked if only regulators and first responders should know when oil is being shipped on trains through their area to prevent possible attacks, 47 percent of respondents said yes.

Horvick said those results did surprise him.

“I would have thought it would have been the reverse,” he said. “”When we do polling on any number of issues that get at the question of transparency and information to the public, the default position for people tends to be the more information the better. That my government shouldn’t hide or prevent me from knowing anything. … But at least framed up this way they’re willing to withhold some information if it is to prevent a possible attack.”

Support for oil trains was a little higher in Idaho at 64 percent compared with 59 percent support in Oregon and 53 percent support in Washington. Overall, 21 percent of those polled said they don’t know whether they support or oppose the idea of shipping oil by rail.

Earthfix Survey Oil Trains by State June 2014.  This story originally appeared through the EarthFix public media collaboration.
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