There is nothing to celebrate in a train accident and oil spill.
But the outcome of last week’s derailment of a train carrying volatile crude oil in Whatcom County was a testament to Washington’s strong oil spill policies and rigorous training.
Nobody was hurt despite the spectacular crash and fire on Dec. 22, and there appears to be little environmental harm.
Other municipalities through which oil trains pass should note how preparation and a coordinated response prevented an accident from becoming a catastrophe.
At the same time, federal safety regulators should look closely at this accident as they review standards for tank cars carrying flammable material. Tank cars upgraded to meet the latest safety standard still ruptured and caught fire in the low-speed derailment.
Knowing accidents are inevitable with more than 20 billion gallons of oil moving through the state annually by rail, ship, pipeline and truck, Washington policymakers crafted one of the nation’s strongest oil-spill preparedness and response programs over the last decade.
That was motivated in part by tragedies, including a 1999 pipeline explosion that killed two 10-year-old boys and an 18-year-old man in Bellingham.
Federal action was prompted in part by a 2013 oil train crash and explosion in Quebec that killed 47.
Congress in 2015 created new safety standards, including a requirement that safer tank cars be used for transporting flammable material such as crude oil.
Washington’s Legislature stepped up. Its 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act requires, among other things, advance notice of crude oil shipments by rail. That enables the state to notify local emergency responders so they can be prepared. Earlier this year, it funded the state spills program through the 2027-2029 biennium.
Such preparedness is critical because of the perpetual risk these shipments pose.
“There’s no question that the Washington state regulations have helped improve the ability to respond to spills such as this,” John Gargett, deputy director of emergency management in the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, told this editorial board.
Whatcom County is particularly well prepared because of its experience with spills and local refineries. Its training includes derailment exercises, such as one four years ago in Custer, where last week’s accident occurred.
Because of that training, agencies already had evacuation plans and identified staging areas. Commanders also knew each other by first name because they’d practiced together.
“When we were on site it wasn’t ‘who is the chief in charge?’ ” he recalled. “It was ‘Hey Chuck, can we do this? Hey John, can you take care of that?'”
Gargett said the train was only traveling about 7 miles per hour when it derailed, and cold temperature reduced flammability. Nearby refineries sent specialized firefighting equipment. The cars also met the higher federal safety standard, DOT-117. Otherwise, he said, “It probably would have been quite a bit more catastrophic.”
By 2025, all crude oil shipped by rail must be in DOT-117 cars, under the deadline Congress set in 2015.
Use of DOT-117 cars is increasing, but they accounted for just 34% of the fleet carrying highly flammable liquids in 2018, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation survey released last year.
Regulators should not wait for the 2025 deadline to begin evaluating whether the DOT-117 standard is safe enough.
While last week’s accident had a relatively good outcome, it happened in ideal circumstances and there was still a fire. What if the train was moving faster in warm weather and derailed in a denser area, such as downtown Seattle?
Meanwhile, other communities through which oil is shipped should note how well investments in preparedness paid off last week in Whatcom County.