As the number of oil trains crisscrossing Washington state grows, lawmakers need to improve safety and clean-up plans in case of spills.

Share story

AS Washington legislators weighed competing oil-train safety bills this past week, yet another train filled with volatile North Dakota crude oil derailed and exploded, this time in West Virginia.

It provided still more evidence that stronger laws and regulations are needed to protect the public and the environment from the trains, which now carry a significant and fast-growing share of North America’s oil from well to refinery.

The first oil train crossed the Washington state line in 2012. By last year, 19 were arriving weekly, according to the state Department of Ecology, and there could be seven times as many by 2020.

They travel through Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Vancouver and every major city on the I-5 corridor.

In Olympia, two bills are in play: Gov. Jay Inslee’s HB 1449, supported by environmentalists and many Democrats, and SB 5057, sponsored by state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, which has the backing of railroads, oil companies and many Republicans.

Either measure would be an improvement over the status quo. But a Republican Senate and Democratic House all but guarantee neither would become law in their present forms.

A compromise is needed; it should include at least two key features of Inslee’s bill that aren’t found in Ericksen’s.

Perhaps most important is the governor’s proposal to require railroads to provide the state with advance notice of transfers of oil to and from trains — time, location, volume, type of oil. Backers say communities and first responders need the information to plan for and respond to accidents. Railroads contend it’s proprietary and that making it public would pose security risks.

Some details may indeed be so sensitive that access should be restricted. But the railroads’ insistence that the public has no right to know anything goes too far.

They’ve even fought to keep secret the very limited information the federal government now requires them to provide to states on oil-train movements — information the Federal Railroad Administration concluded is “neither security-sensitive nor commercially sensitive.”

Inslee’s bill also would quite reasonably require railroads to develop state oil-spill response plans, as marine oil terminals already must. Ericksen contends requiring such plans is beyond the state’s power because the federal government has pre-empted the field.

Railroads agree, and have hinted at litigation. They’ve already gone to court to challenge a similar requirement in California.

Fear of a lawsuit shouldn’t deter Washington legislators. While the federal government has limited states’ power to regulate railroads, some lawyers argue those limits don’t preclude states from adopting their own oil-spill plan requirements.

And federal standards for spill plans fall far short of what’s needed.

The federal government is moving to tighten its oil-train safety rules, in part because of prodding from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. But states have a role here, too, and Washington legislators shouldn’t shy away from claiming it.