Get Moving on Oil Train Safety Rules, Cantwell Tells Obama Administration

By:  The Seattle Pi - Joel Connelly
Source: The Seattle Pi

With 19 oil trains passing through Washington towns and cities each week, the U.S. Department of Transportation should move its behind, finalize and enforce safety rules for tanker cars, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Wednesday.

“We should go faster: The administration should get those recommendations implemented,” Cantwell said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

“My constituents are now seeing trains through every major city in our state: They’re literally hitting Spokane through the Tri-Cities, through Vancouver, up through Tacoma, Seattle, Everett and then up to the refineries.”

The first oil train rolled through Puget Sound cities in September of 2012. Since then, operators of four large refineries at Anacortes and Cherry Point (near Ferndale) have turned to the rails as a way of getting Bakken crude oil from North Dakota.

The oil trains have created a dilemma for Washington’s congressional delegation.

The refineries support more than 1,100 family wage union jobs. Yet, the trains roll through major population centers.

Railroads exercise great authority to do what they want under the Interstate Commerce Act. They’ve been balky, secretive and proprietary about giving local emergency managers full details of what hazardous cargoes they are transporting.

One oil company, Tesoro, reports that it has phased out use of older DOT-111 tank cars and will not accept such cars from shippers at its refinery or a proposed oil terminal in Vancouver. The Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad has announced it is acquiring thousands of newer, safer cars.

The hulls of DOT-111 tank cars have punctured — spectacularly and disastrously.  Its brakes having failed, an oil train rolled into the town of La Megantic, Quebec, in the middle of a summer night in 2013. It exploded, wiped out the town center and killed 47 people.

A coal train passes an oil train in Magnolia last May, after several tanker cars on the oil train derailed. No damage was done. But the episode demonstrated that oil and coal are emerging as major commodities shipped through Puget Sound population centers.

A train loaded with Bakken crude exploded near New Carrolton, N.D., a few months later, luckily away from population centers.

Despite promises of a phase-over to safer cars, some 80,000 of the older, less safe DOT-111′s remain in use. And newer cars were involved in an accident last year that forced evacuation of downtown Lynchburg, Va., and dumped oil into the James River.

Cantwell peppered U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx at a hearing last year. Fox did announce a new order requiring railroads to identify routes where trains are hauling more than one million gallons of Bakken crude and to notify state emergency managers.

When attention turns away, however, the USDOT’s performance has been less than stellar.

A budget package to fund the federal government, passed by Congress in December, told the Transportation Department to finalize new standards for oil tank cars by Jan. 15.  The USDOT missed the deadline and won’t deliver the new rules until May.

“These rail cars are going through every major population center in our state,” Cantwell said. “It’s a very big issue for us. I feel like our committee has some very important roles to play on safety and security, and so we will look forward to that.”

Washington is the fifth largest refining state in the United States.

The hopes of having the Washington Legislature enact strong state safety and transparency rules likely died last November.

The Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee of the state Senate is chaired by state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, an oil industry ally with two refineries in his district. The vice chair is Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach, a heavy recipient of fossil fuel donations in last fall’s campaign. Sheldon votes with Republicans in the Legislature.