Oil train safety bills in Washington state

Repost from Skagit Valley Herald, GOSKAGIT.com

Lawmakers focus on oil train safety in House, Senate bills

Measures move forward as session’s Feb. 18 cutoff approaches

By Daniel DeMay, GOSKAGIT

OLYMPIA — Trains carrying crude oil across Washington, including those that may soon head to the Shell Puget Sound refinery at March Point in Anacortes, are the center of attention in state legislation under consideration this week.

House Bill 2347 and Senate Bill 6524 are both aimed at stepping up the safety of oil trains in the wake of increasing numbers of spills and other rail incidents across the country last year.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, would require quarterly reporting of oil transport data and a study of the state’s ability to respond to a spill, as well as provisions to increase safety of oil brought by tanker into Puget Sound, Grays Harbor and the Columbia River. The Senate bill would require a study of the safety of rail oil transport in the state, including spill response abilities.

Though the exact increase in oil trains through Washington is unclear, production of oil has risen dramatically in the U.S., mostly due an almost 1,000 percent increase in production in North Dakota, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Burlington City Councilman Chris Loving said the two measures are a step in the right direction, and he hopes they will wind up addressing evacuation in the event of a serious spill.

“There’s no way we could fight a fire (from a spill),” Loving said.

Loving said even the increase of one 100-car train per day that Shell hopes to bring to its refinery would worsen the existing problem of crossing the tracks that split Burlington north and south.

The key for Farrell is transparency about what is passing through towns and cities in rail cars and tankers, and the dangers those products might pose to people, she said Tuesday before a vote on her bill in the House Environment Committee.

“The public has a right to know what’s happening in our communities with regard to oil transport,” she said.

Her measure passed in an 8-5 vote, days before the cutoff to get policy bills out of committee.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, received testimony in a public hearing Tuesday afternoon in the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, chaired by Ericksen. Despite the late hearing, lawmakers there were confident it would get out of committee.

The Senate proposal would require studies of safety and preparedness, create a $10 million fund and direct cities and counties to create first-responder programs for spill response. Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill would not require disclosure of rail or tanker shipment data and does not call for added provisions on tanker safety.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said some version of the bill would move forward, although it may include portions of a third bill on the matter that has yet to be granted a hearing. That bill is essentially the equivalent of Farrell’s House measure.

Ranker said he thinks the issue of oil transport is the biggest environmental and economic issue the state faces.

“It’s something we’ve got to get a handle on,” he said after the hearing. “And right now, we don’t.”

The lack of action in Ericksen’s bill drew criticism from lobbyists and other stakeholders who testified Tuesday. Most agreed that portions of the SB 6262, the companion to Farrell’s measure, would need to be included for SB 6524 to be adequate.

“We’re really in a period of dramatic change,” said Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist for Puget Sound Keeper Alliance. “We really think it deserves more than studying issues.”

The House bill will need to be voted out of the House before Feb. 18 to get further consideration. The Senate bill needs to be out of committee this week and also make it out of the Senate before Feb. 18.

— Reporter Daniel DeMay: ddemay@skagitpublishing.com; Twitter: @Daniel_SVH