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Originally published Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 4:42 PM

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Empower oil transport safety as rail traffic grows

As oil shipments soar across the United States, a bill in the state Legislature would provide communities with basic oil traffic information.

Times editorial columnist

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As plans to export Powder River Basin coal via Washington state are under review, a dramatic increase in oil shipments by rail also looms on the horizon.

Recent derailments in North Dakota, Alabama, Alberta and Quebec amply demonstrate the potential threat to life and property from accidents involving vast quantities of an apparently more volatile oil.

North Dakota’s U.S. senators, Republican John Hoeven and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, are pushing the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for more information about the nature of the oil, and the safety of oil tank cars.

New tank car standards were adopted in 2011, but the surge in demand for crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil shale field has the industry scrambling for ways to move it. Can tank cars and the existing rail system handle the demand?

Sen. Hoeven is taking on an industry that is fueling boom times in his state. Nonetheless, Don Canton of the senator’s staff repeats Hoeven’s mantra “that everyone has an interest in getting this right.”

Yes, indeed, and a bill introduced in the Washington Legislature by state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Lake Forest Park, pointedly complements the inquiries into rail operations that are the jurisdiction of Congress.

Farrell’s measure, House Bill 2347, would direct and empower the state to gather and share information about the kind of oil, the volume of oil and the routes of oil traffic through the state. The prime sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

The Environmental Priorities Coalition, representing more than 20 of the state’s environmental organizations, has made oil transportation safety a top priority this session.

The legislation seeks to reduce the risk of oil spills from vessels and improve maritime procedures, and inform local jurisdictions about oil transport by rail so local public-safety agencies can plan accordingly.

The point, Rep. Farrell said in a call Wednesday, is to address the rapidly changing oil production environment.

These are not speculative actions. The Port of Vancouver in Clark County has a lease offer from Tesoro and Savage to build a $110 million oil terminal that could handle 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

A legal challenge of that project lost in superior court this week, as the plan works through the state environmental review process.

Another 10 new or expanded oil facilities are under discussion.

HB 2347 should be embraced by the House and Senate, across party lines. This kind of basic fact gathering allows government to plan for the worse, and protect lives and property and save tax dollars as a result.

This point was reinforced by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and Attorney General Bob Ferguson as they announced plans to press criminal charges against vessel owners in Pierce and Kitsap counties. This is all about accountability.

Goldmark, in a Times editorial board meeting this week, praised the coordination of local and state officials and emergency services following the 2012 Penn Cove incident, when a derelict ship sank and was eventually raised.

With parallel hazards on dry land with rail derailments, Goldmark makes the point, “It is important to know what the level of traffic is.”

That is a goal of HB 2347, along with other related and kindred details about all manner of oil transport.

Consider this factoid from a recent Reuters article that cites a figure from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who is worried about oil tankers and rail traffic in the Hudson River Valley north of New York City

In the United States, 1,400 trains carry crude each day, up from 31 in 2009.

Getting a handle on the numbers in Washington is a basic task accomplished by HB 2347. Empower communities to take care of themselves.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is

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