Washington Department of Ecology officials long have planned for crude-oil spills from a ruptured pipeline or a maritime mishap.
With surging production from North Dakota increasing the amount of petroleum being shipped by rail, they have scrambled during the past year to prepare for a third possibility — oil leaking out of derailed tanker cars.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s train disaster in Quebec that killed some 50 people, state officials say they must now contemplate another scenario — oil tanker cars that blow up.
“We have absolutely had the issues of crude oil by rail on our radar. But until last weekend, I don’t think that anyone here could have imagined that the result of a derailment could be an explosion,” said Curt Hart, a Department of Ecology spokesman.
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For decades, railroads have carried all sorts of hazardous materials through the Pacific Northwest. Since 2012, three terminals — two in Washington and one in Oregon — have started bringing in crude oil by rail from North Dakota.
The volume is poised to expand dramatically.
Refineries and other developers are planning or building eight additional terminals in Washington to receive crude oil, according to a report by the Seattle-based Sightline Institute.
State officials are working with the oil industry and railroads to prepare for a spill in Eastern Washington, or possibly along the tracks that run through the Columbia Gorge and reach the Columbia River.
“Our system was never built to respond to crude oil coming in from those areas, and we’re not there yet,” Hart said. “We need to shift resources.”
The Department of Ecology’s spill-response planning is complicated by the state’s lack of regulatory authority over rail shipments of hazardous materials. While the state imposes a tax on tanker or barge oil brought into the state to fund marine spill response, it has no power to tax rail shipments to fund response efforts, Hart said.
Railroad officials say they have long trained for hazardous spills.
BNSF Railway, which operates the lines that carry the most of the freight, has 28 hazardous-material employees, based in six Washington cities, including Vancouver, Pasco and Spokane, according to Roxanne Butler, a BNSF spokeswoman.
BNSF also has specialized firefighting and spill-cleanup equipment, including a trailer that can produce foam to combat a crude-oil blaze that cannot be extinguished with water.
“We mobilize trailers to the location of an incident and fly in industrial firefighters to operate the equipment,” Butler said in a written statement.
The U.S. crude that arrives in the Pacific Northwest cannot be exported under federal law. So it will be delivered to Washington and California refineries to supplement oil brought in by tanker from declining Alaska oil fields or oil imports.
If all these Washington terminal projects for crude oil eventually open and operate at full capacity, an estimated 20 crude-oil trains would move through the state each day, according to the Sightline study. Such trains could stretch for a mile, and each car typically carries more than 28,000 gallons of crude.
“The whole industry really is in a period of transition,” said Eric de Place, author of the Sightline report.
Frank Holmes, of the Western States Petroleum Association, said that the five refineries in Washington state are expected to take more crude from the Bakken oil region centered in North Dakota.
He said it is too early to speculate on how much oil will arrive by rail. “This is all market driven, and it’s going to be a while before everything shakes out,” he said.
Those trains would add to freight traffic that also may be increased in the future by coal-export terminals proposed for Longview and Cherry Point.
The largest crude-oil terminal is proposed for Vancouver, where a terminal to be developed by Tesoro and Savage Services would receive rail shipments , then load oil on barges for transport to West Coast refineries.
In a statement, Tesoro said, “We will work in close coordination with regulatory agencies to update our spill prevention programs.”
Tesoro has spill-response equipment at its facilities in the rail corridor, and in the event of a rail incident would support the rail operator’s response, according to the statement.
Nationwide, a Federal Railroad Administration spokesman says that train accidents have declined 43 percent since 2004, and that 2012 was the safest year in railroading history. And, the Association of American Railroads says that 99.997 percent of hazardous-material car loads moving by rail arrive at their destination without a leak caused by accidents.
Still, accidents do happen.
At least six trains carrying hazardous materials were involved in Washington derailments in the past decade, according to news accounts.
They included a 2011 derailment in Pierce County that spilled sodium hydroxide onto the banks of Puget Sound. In a 2007 accident in Yakima, an unmanned train rolled backward and four cars carrying liquid propane derailed but did not leak.
Elsewhere in the nation, a 2009 derailment of 19 cars carrying ethanol fuel in Illinois killed one person. That accident prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to scrutinize of DOT-111 tank cars that carry many hazardous materials.
The Association of American Railroads has backed improvements to new rail cars but in 2011 asked that the rules not apply to existing tank cars.
The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is considering amendments to current regulations for the DOT-111 tank cars.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.