Cantwell Joins Fire Chiefs, King County Leaders to Address Oil Train Risks

fire chiefs send letter calling for national support of Crude-By-Rail Safety Act

SEATTLE – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, King County Executive Dow Constantine and area fire chiefs to call for stronger regulations on crude oil shipped by trains, including limits on the volatility of oil inside tank cars.

In addition, an organization representing Washington state fire chiefs sent a letter calling on their national organization to endorse the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015 – legislation that Cantwell introduced that would set safety standards for trains hauling flammable crude oil and provide resources for first responders to fight potential disasters caused by oil train accidents.

“The Washington Fire Chiefs has a keen interest in protecting our citizens from disastrous fire and explosions, especially the hazards we have experienced nationwide from Bakken oil train disasters,” Washington Fire Chiefs Executive Director Wayne Senter wrote to the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Here in Washington State we have had ‘near-miss’ Bakken oil train disasters and the railroads report that the frequency of these trains carrying this commodity will increase exponentially over the next few years. We don't want to wait for the event to occur in Washington State before we advocate for improved safety with this commodity.”

Up to 11 oil trains pass through Seattle each week, running beneath downtown in a tunnel that is 100 years old and lacks modern safety features.

“We’re here today because first responders -- men and women on the frontlines -- understand exactly how volatile this product is and the impact that a train derailment could have on Seattle,” Cantwell said. “Every day, trains hauling flammable crude pass right through the heart of downtown. I’ve been speaking with first responders across the state, and they tell me that one of their main concerns is the volatility of Bakken crude. We’re asking that new rules go into place as soon as possible.”

Cantwell met with firefighters at the City of Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center downtown, which is just a few blocks from the rail tunnel. There have been four fiery derailments involving oil trains in North America since the start of February.

“In Seattle, BNSF railway runs two oil trains under our city nearly every day,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said. “Our first responders are training and preparing for an incident, but we must also act to reduce the risk of a catastrophic event. I stand in strong support of Senator Cantwell’s legislation to prevent and reduce the impacts of an oil train disaster here and across the country.”

“If we stand together – as we do today – we can make our voices heard at the national level,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine, who is chairman of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance“There’s clearly a growing demand for an organizational structure that enables local governments to speak with a unified voice on this important issue – and we are growing the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance to meet that demand.”

Cantwell introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015 with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The legislation requires the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to establish new regulations to mitigate the volatility of gases in crude oil shipped via tank car. It also would immediately halt the use of older-model tank cars that have been shown to be at high risk for puncturing and catching fire in derailments.

The Crude-By-Rail Safety Act addresses emergency response to oil train accidents by providing:

  • Resources for first responders: Authorizes $40 million for first responder training programs, establishes grants for local communities to update emergency response plans, and improves emergency notification procedures.
  • Requirements for rail carriers: Requires railroads to develop comprehensive emergency response plans adequate to respond to large accidents involving fire or explosions.
  • Increased Transparency: Requires railroads shipping volatile crude to provide information on crude-by-rail shipments to State Emergency Response Commissions and Local Emergency Planning Committees along hazmat rail routes.

The legislation follows four fiery derailments involving oil trains since the start of February. No injuries were reported, but a July 2013 derailment in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, resulted in 47 deaths. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates an average of 10 derailments annually over the next 20 years as crude-by-rail shipments grow, costing $4 billion.

Five years ago, railroads hauled almost no crude oil. Now, more than 1.1 million barrels per day – with more expected – move by rail, largely originating in the Midwest. But safety regulations have not kept pace, and thousands of tank cars now in use to haul hazardous materials were not designed to carry the more flammable crude that comes from regions such as the Bakken shale.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates an average of 10 derailments annually over the next 20 years as crude-by-rail shipments grow, costing $4 billion.