Keep oil-train safety and accident prevention on track
A Spokane hearing on oil-train safety revealed the miles to go before industry, lawmakers and concerned citizens hear each other out.
Times editorial columnist
State residents must be protected from the hazards of oil trains hauling ever-increasing quantities of crude oil from North Dakota to terminal sites in Western Washington.
Seems straightforward enough, but a public hearing Tuesday in Spokane demonstrated how difficult and needlessly complex the problem has become.
Spokane is the entry point for oil trains into the state. Every tank car moves through the city. The state Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, chaired by state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, convened the hearing.
Well, for starters, virtually no one from Spokane had a chance to speak. Oil industry and railroad representatives talked for most of the session. Among those irritated by the rationing of time was Spokane City Council President Bob Stuckart, who eventually got a moment or two at the microphone. After the hearing he said he had seen other council members, tribal representatives and local citizens drift away in frustration.
The audience heard lengthy discourse on petroleum volatility, flammability and corrosivity. And, oh my, the liquid that has spewed out of derailed tank cars, and consumed towns in flames, is so much safer than what we saw.
Ericksen explained Thursday a goal of the hearing was to provide the committee access to industry data and interpretations to get the range of arguments in play.
What made the industry lectures all the more curious is that various federal agencies tried for months to get detailed information on the nature of the crude oil. Those regulatory agencies had far less benign thoughts about the hazards in play.
The hearing was an attempt to gather information to inform the legislative process for 2015. That is necessary because 2014 was such a bust.
A comprehensive piece of legislation, E2SHB 2347, introduced by state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, pursued access to information about oil shipments, by land and water, to inform public-safety efforts. The bill passed the House, and never got a hearing in the Senate.
Legislation that inspired the Spokane hearing, SB 6582, was sponsored by state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, and Ericksen. The bill got no substantive attention in the Senate last session. It seeks studies, and would direct closely held oil-transport information toward the state Department of Ecology. It would expand a penny barrel tax to support local emergency responders.
Among those frustrated by the lack of audience involvement was Kerry McHugh, of the Washington Environmental Council. She was in Spokane for the hearing, and later spoke of the local voices with safety and environmental concerns that were not heard.
A primary concern for McHugh is the absence of transparency in the Senate bill to promote accident prevention. What is being hauled in the tank cars, and will that information get to local first responders in a timely fashion?
At this point, the best chance of answering those pragmatic questions comes from the June 11 directive issued by Gov. Jay Inslee. He wants the Department of Ecology to coordinate with other state agencies, the federal government, tribes and others to assess oil-train risks.
The Legislature put $300,000 into the state budget to pay for the studies directed by Inslee. He put an Oct. 1 due date on the assignment. The broader barrel tax proposed in SB 6582 is still needed.
Risk assessment holds the promise of clarity on the timely sharing of oil-train-shipment information with local first responders. They need lead time to train, prepare and have the right equipment on hand if the worst happens.
Equal effort must be put toward preventing accidents and mitigating the known risks and hazards. Ericksen said Thursday his goal is to make it safe to move product through the state.
A nasty record of train collisions and derailments followed by explosions, fires and numerous deaths carry the debate beyond the hypothetical, and the vagaries of the Reid vapor pressure index described in Spokane.
Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com