Category Archives: State regulation

When a Public Hearing Isn’t for the Public; Oil Train Hearing in Spokane Leaves Public Frustrated

Repost from Huffington Post

When a Public Hearing Isn’t for the Public; Oil Train Hearing in Spokane, WA Leaves Public Frustrated

Bart Mihailovich, Spokane Riverkeeper   |   06/18/2014

Earlier this week, members of the Washington State Senate’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee held a public hearing on oil trains and oil transport safety in Spokane, WA in the Spokane City Council chambers at Spokane City Hall. The hearing was organized by Senators Mike Baumgartner (R-Spokane) and Doug Ericksen (R-Bellingham) who during last year’s legislative session proposed SB 6524 that called for more studies in regards to the safety of the transport of hazardous materials through the state. The bill was quite a bit weaker than a bill proposed by the Washington Environmental Priorities Coalition, and was often referred to as the industry bill.

The significance of such a hearing being held in Spokane shouldn’t be understated as these hearings are typically held in Olympia at the Capital, but also because of all the cities in the state of Washington, Spokane the greater Inland Northwest are significantly more at risk to an increase in oil trains due to the proximity and quantity of rail lines through the community.

Spokane Riverkeeper, and many others in attendance, attended the hearing with a goal of hearing from Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen about their bill and any possible (or hopeful) changes that they may be thinking going forward, and to testify concerns about the aforementioned bill for not being strong and specific enough, and to testify general and / or specific concerns about Bakken crude oil trains traveling through Spokane and surrounding communities.

Little did many of us in attendance know, though I suppose we should have expected, that Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen planned an extremely frustrating two hours of stalling and industry speak with very little public testimony and barely any mention of Spokane and the impacts shipping crude oil poses to Spokane and surrounding communities.

Representatives from the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) took up roughly 100 of the 120 minutes of the hearing with occasional questioning and comments from other members of the Senate committee. And with those questions, industry rarely answered with specifics and almost always pivoted away to comfortable talking points.

Frustrations from those in attendance in the Council Chambers started appearing almost immediately as the rep from the North Dakota Petroleum Council went very deep in to a PowerPoint presentation disputing claims about Bakken crude oil is more flammable or more dangerous using complicated slides and numbers about flash points and chemistry factors.

Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder took to Twitter to express frustrations: [jonbsnyder@jonbsnyder  State Senate hearing on Oil Trains in Spokane: more of a chemistry lesson than a safety discussion. Thx @andybillig for good questions.  11:11 AM – 17 Jun 2014]

At one point during the extremely long, boring and not particularly on topic presentation from the oil industry, Senator Mike Baumgartner spoke up and asked for the rep to speak in layman’s terms and say yes or no, Bakken Crude oil is more flammable and more dangerous than other types of products. To which the rep responded, “no, it’s the same”, and which also provided the Republican Senate staffer who was live Tweeting the hearing a very likable and shareable tweet to attribute to Senator Baumgartner who conveniently enough is in the midst of a reelection campaign. More on this convenient irony later.

But more importantly, the claim that Bakken crude is not as dangerous is not only controversial, but also on the wrong side of not only public perception but regulatory movement, as can be seen in a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announcement from earlier this year.

Next up were a few suits from BNSF who spent most of their time lauding investments that BNSF is or has made to make their company and their equipment safer, for themselves, and little or no time talking about how to make Spokane or surrounding communities safer.

Then the kicker was BNSF often repeating that 2013 was their safest year to date, when in fact it was wildly reported earlier this year that more oil was spilled in 2013 from BNSF trains than the previous 38 years total.

With the 18 minutes that were left in the hearing, members of the public, those with persistence, were given an opportunity to speak to the Committee and those who spoke almost all testified to concerns for shipping dangerous Bakken crude through Spokane and the Inland Northwest, especially given the litany of recent oil train accidents and the increasing and louder call for more transparency, more safety and more certainty. A recap of concerns can be found via this news article from The Spokesman-Review.

If this truly was a hearing for Spokane, by Spokane, we most certainly would have seen, and would have been right to expect to see presentations or statements from various response or regulatory agencies in the area who would be responsible if something were to happen in Spokane. Nowhere or at no time did we hear from any of those agencies or representatives. Which leads me to conclude that this was never intended to be any more than a highly politicized campaign opportunity for two Senators in heated reelection bids.

Yes, it was a big deal, or could have ben a big deal that the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee came to Spokane for this hearing. But I couldn’t help to think that right off the bat the whole thing was stacked against the public. The hearing was at 10:30 a.m., a very difficult time for members of the public and concerned citizens to participate . I found it funny that Senator Baumgartner used his welcome address to say, “this is good for Spokane as many folks here find it difficult to travel to Olympia to participate in the process like this.”. To which I would say, Senator Baumgartner, this hearing didn’t make anything easier. A quick glance around the Council Chambers also showed that there were far more more lobbyists, industry staffers, and other “paid to be there” attendees than members of the public.

Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen are both very savvy politicians. Oil train shipments through Spokane and the state of Washington is a very heated issue. Their bill last year was an industry bill at best, offering nothing more than more studies and more hearings and little in the way of what residents of this state want which is transparency, safety and some level of assurance. Being their both in reelection mode, having this hearing in Spokane, completely loaded with industry jargon to stall and delay public concerns gave them an opportunity to look like the good guys who are tackling an issue that the constituents want them to. Having the state Senate Republican party there live Tweeting the event to make it look like Baumgartner and Ericksen were getting to the bottom of the public’s concerns was almost too good to be true.

And you know what, it worked. Coverage of the hearing was picked up by news outlets around the state and the region, and all of the coverage painted Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen as the leaders of the concerns. When in fact it was the mere 18 minutes of testimony from the public and questions from other members of the Senate committee that elevated the concerns and asked the questions important to Spokane.

Amazing how much influence the public had with 18 minutes. Imagine if this really was a public hearing.

New Hampshire and Minnesota pass new laws on emergency response

Repost from Inside Climate News

2 States Beef Up Oil-by-Rail and Pipeline Safety After String of Accidents

Other states that have surging oil-by-rail traffic and pipelines carrying tar sands are expected to consider similar safety requirements.
By Elizabeth Douglass, InsideClimate News  |  Jun 16, 2014
Oil tankers on fire at the train derailment site in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 10, 2013. Concern among the public and state lawmakers over the safety of oil transport has been building with each major oil pipeline spill and train derailment. Credit: Sûreté du Québec

Alarmed by a string of explosive and disastrous oil spills, two states recently passed laws aimed at forcing rail and pipeline companies to abide by more rigorous emergency response measures instead of relying on the federal government.

The moves by New Hampshire and Minnesota reflect a desire for more control over in-state hazards, as well as mounting frustration over gaps in federal law involving oil pipelines and oil trains, superficial federal reviews and the secrecy surrounding spill response plans submitted to U.S. regulators.

“At this point, lots of states are looking at oil-by-rail and thinking about how they would respond—whether they have the resources, whether their first responders have the resources, and whether their laws are sufficient to protect their communities,” said Rebecca Craven, program director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group based in Washington State.

It’s the same with pipelines. “States are becoming more aware of new pipelines being proposed in their states, or expansion of existing pipelines, or changes in [a pipeline’s] products,” Craven said. “As a result of public concerns being raised, they’re starting to respond by undertaking state-level spill response plans. I think it could be a trend.”

Under New Hampshire’s law, which the governor is expected to sign, the state gains the power to establish its own, more stringent requirements for inland pipeline spill response plans and equipment. Minnesota’s law creates tougher emergency preparedness standards for pipelines and oil-carrying railroads. It also charges rail and pipeline companies a fee to help equip and train local fire departments to handle oil accidents.

“I think it’s pretty much indisputable at this point that what exists at the federal level is not adequate,” said Sheridan Brown, legislative coordinator for the New Hampshire Audubon. “We’re happy that there’s going to be some state level oversight.”

The concern over the safety of oil transport has been building with each major oil pipeline spill and train derailment.

The most catastrophic incident was the July 6, 2013 accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a train derailed, causing 63 railcars full of North Dakota light crude oil to explode and killing 47 people. Since then, a series of other oil train derailments have resulted in fires or explosions, including in Aliceville, Ala.; Casselton, N.D.; Plaster Rock, New Brunswick; and Lynchburg, Va.

Major pipeline spills have been in the public spotlight, too. The most notable of them is the July 2010 pipeline rupture in Marshall, Mich., where more than one million gallons of tar sands oil spilled, fouling the Kalamazoo River—a disaster that has yet to be fully cleaned up. In April 2013, a pipeline split open and dumped tar sands oil into a Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood.

Under pressure to provide better oversight, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have enacted  and proposed new rules for pipelines and trains and imposed voluntary restrictions for oil-laden trains.

But both agencies have a history of being too thinly staffed to carry out the oversight already required of them. And with industry lobbyists working to derail new regulations, critics worry that the necessary protections will never be enacted.

“Essentially, there’s no meaningful regulation or requirements or standards for oil spill response for railroads,” said Paul Blackburn, an attorney and consultant who helped push for Minnesota’s new law. “Instead, decades old federal regulations continue…[that] for all practical purposes exempt railroads from federal oil spill response standards.”

Urgency Felt in Wash., N.H.

Under the federal 1990 Oil Pollution Act, states are allowed to enact their own rules for spill preparedness as long as they are equal to or more rigorous than the federal regulations. Several, including California, Washington, and Oregon, did so years ago.

Now, railroads carrying crude oil through Minnesota have to submit spill prevention and response plans to the state pollution control agency, carry out practice drills and comply with other requirements in an emergency. Companies that move oil in the state via rail or pipeline also have to pay a fee to fund training and buy equipment for emergency crews to respond to an oil-train explosion or pipeline rupture.

“Minnesota recognized that scores of its cities and towns are threatened by crude oil shipments by rail and pipeline, and that local first responders are almost always the first on the scene,” said Blackburn. “To respond to a major spill—such as from an oil unit train [of around 100 tank cars]—is well beyond the abilities of most rural fire departments.”

Blackburn said he expects other states that have growing oil-by-rail traffic to consider similar fees and requirements.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers were focused on preventing and cleaning up oil possible spills from just one pipeline: the Portland-Montreal Pipeline, the only hazardous liquids pipeline in the state. It is partly owned by Portland Pipe Line Corp.

“They have, by and large, been good neighbors, but you look around the country and you see some of the problems that have occurred,” said state Sen. Jeff Woodburn, who sponsored the New Hampshire bill. “I think it’s pretty important to take steps toward giving more authority, more autonomy, to the states to be more engaged in the potential of a spill.”

The 236-mile line consists of three separate pipes built to carry conventional crude oil from Maine, through New Hampshire and Vermont, and on to refineries in Montreal and Ontario. Two of the pipes are still carrying varying amounts of oil, while a third was retired in 1984.

What worries state officials and environmentalists is that the Portland-Montreal pipeline could be reversed and used to carry tar sands oil to Maine’s coast for export. Canada approved what could be the first part of this plan—a reversal on Enbridge Inc.’s Line 9b so it can deliver Alberta’s tar sands to Montreal.

The Portland-Montreal pipeline runs through New Hampshire’s picturesque northern region, crossing more than 70 streams and wetlands, including two major rivers, according to Brown, the legislative coordinator for New Hampshire Audubon. Brown and others are concerned that oil spills involving dilbit are harder to clean because globules tend to sink in water.

“Our North Country economy is primarily based on recreation, so to have something up there that damages wetlands and rivers would really be catastrophic for those communities,” said Brown.

“That got us looking at what [protections are] in place,” he said. “And there really isn’t a lot at the state level…there is a heavy reliance or faith in the federal government that it’s going to take care of things. But the spill in [Michigan] and some of these other spills have shown that that is not the case.”

Once the governor signs it, the New Hampshire law will give the state’s department of environmental services the authority to craft pipeline spill regulations to cover inland oil transit. Currently, that agency is in charge of marine spill prevention and response.

The catch is that the new law won’t come with any new funding—and least not yet. A proposed fee ran into opposition and was dropped from the legislation.

“Our department of environmental services was very generous to accept additional responsibility without additional money,” said Brown. “They saw enough urgency there to doing this, enough benefit to doing it that they said, ‘let’s go forward, and we’ll figure out the funding part of it some other time’…they were eager to have that tool to make sure the plans are better here in the state.”

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.

US DOT and railroads want to circumvent Washington State’s Public Records Act

Repost from The Seattle Post Intelligencer (

Should shipments of oil by rail be kept secret from the public?

Posted on June 4, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
In this image made available by the City of Lynchburg, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)Several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil erupt in  flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., on April 30.  It was the latest in a series of oil train accidents.  Nobody was killed, but much of downtown Lynchburg was evacuated.  (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

The nation’s railroads were told last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation that they must notify state emergency management officials about the volume, frequency and county-by-county routes used in cross country shipment of volatile North Dakota crude oil.

But a hitch has developed in Washington, where refineries at Anacortes and Cherry Point north of Bellingham are increasingly relying on oil by rail.

In its order, the Department of Transportation, siding with the railroads, said the information ought to be kept secret from the public.

The DOT told state emergency preparedness agencies to “treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need to know and with the understanding that recipients of the data will continue to treat it as confidential.”

The BNSF and Union Pacific Railroads have sent the state drafts of confidentiality agreements that would restrict access to what the shippers call “security sensitive information.”

In this Aug. 8, 2012 photo, a DOT-111 rail tanker passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa. DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken region are an "unacceptable public risk," and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2014. The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a House Transportation subcommittee hearing. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)
A DOT-111 rail tanker passes through Council Bluffs, Iowa. DOT-111 rail cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region are an “unacceptable public risk,” and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board told Congress in February. The cars were involved in derailments of oil trains in Casselton, N.D., and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, just across the U.S. border. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

On Wednesday, however, spokesman Mark Stewart of state Emergency Response Commission told the Associated Press that the railroads’ request conflicts with one of Washington pioneering open government laws.

The confidentiality agreements “require us to withhold the information in a manner that’s not consistent with the Public Records Act,” Stewart told the AP.

The US DOT order came in the wake of a series of oil train fires, most recently train cars catching fire in Lynchburg, Virginia and dumping “product” into the James River.

This follows a deadly runaway trail explosion last year that leveled the downtown of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and killed 47 people, as well as an explosion and fire near Casselton, North Dakota.

Lawmakers, notably Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, have pressed the Transportation Department to speed implementation of new safety rules that would require phaseout of 1960′s-vintage, explosion vulnerable DOT 111 tank cars.

The Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes accepted its first trainload of oil in September of 2012. The shipments have soared, with 17 million barrels of oil coming into the state by rail in 2013.  Trains carry as many as 50,000 barrels of crude oil to the Tesoro refinery.

And Tesoro wants to build a $100 million rail-to-barge terminal in the Port of Vancouver on the Columbia River. It would be the largest such terminal in the Northwest, capable of receiving 380,000 barrels of oil a day. The Vancouver City Council voted earlier this week to oppose the project.

Shell Anacortes is in the process of creating a facility that would take 100-car oil trains.  The BP Refinery at Cherry Point is also receiving oil by rail.

All told, according to a Sightline Institute study, 11 refineries and ports in Washington and Oregon are either receiving oil by rail, or have projects underway to receive rail shipments of oil.

The shipments head by rail through cities in both Eastern and Western Washington.

The railroads have been highly secretive about their operations.  They are regulated by the federal government under the Interstate Commerce Act, leaving cities and local governments with almost no rights to request information or limit operations.

The BNSF has promised to purchase 5,000 newer, safer tank cars, and Tesoro has pledged to phase out use of the DOT-111 cars this year.