Washington is still developing a safety net for the transport of this explosive product.
Washington isn’t ready for an oil-train derailment.
Those trains — made up entirely of black, sealed cars and carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil — are relatively new to Washington, rolling through some of the state’s most populous and environmentally sensitive areas.
Regulations, training and infrastructure to ensure a quick and effective response to a derailment, explosion, fire or spill are still being developed — even as the volume of oil transported by train in Washington ramped up from nothing in 2011 to 700 million gallons in 2013.
“This is exactly what we were worried about,” said Rob Duff, senior policy adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee on natural resources and the environment, after an oil train carrying Bakken Crude derailed and caught fire in Mosier, Ore., on Friday. “We are playing catch-up.”
Even as firefighters and hazardous-materials teams mobilized to help Oregon officials, Washington state’s Department of Ecology was set to convene a hearing on two new rules intended to improve the state’s response capability. But on the ground, it was a scramble.
Part of the reason was that while Washington has for decades developed response plans, training and infrastructure to deal with marine spills, oil by rail is new.
“We have a very good spill response on the marine side, we do a lot of training and exercises, that program was built up over the last couple of decades and we can take pride in the fact that we have a very good response on the marine side,” Duff said. “It just wasn’t there on the rail side, because we didn’t move oil on rail.”
The Columbia River Gorge offers a nightmare scenario for a derailment disaster, with busy railroads crammed in a rock canyon between highways, along many communities, and along a major river, full of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
Communities along the Gorge, including tribes with treaty rights to fish, are being subjected to unreasonable danger, said Sara Thompson, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
“The risk of transporting this amount of volatile crude as we have just seen play out through the Columbia River Gorge and along the Columbia River is unacceptable,” Thompson said. “We have tribal members that are accessing the river all through the Gorge. There are not a lot of places for an oil train to go if it derails.”
First the train derailed Friday, then it started to burn. At least one car ruptured, shooting flames in the air. Not for nothing do critics call oil trains “bomb trains.”
Washington state is becoming a western gateway for oil by rail. Future crude-by-rail traffic may increase to 17 billion gallons by 2035, according to a study by the state Department of Ecology, which also is posting updates on the Oregon derailment. New facilities for oil transport are under active consideration, including a facility in Vancouver, Wash. That could put four or five more oil trains per day through the Gorge, each with as many as 120 cars in trains a mile and a half long.
Meanwhile, the feds hold most of the cards to increase safety on the rails, from slowing down trains to requiring safer cars and better brakes. But so far the feds haven’t done enough, Duff said.
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Timelines for requiring double-sided cars and better valves are too long, Duff said, with implementation as late as 2025. And some improvements, such as a requirement for electronic braking systems, could even be undone by other legislation recently passed by Congress.
Meanwhile, Ecology and the Washington State Legislature have been ramping up rules to deal with trains if they come off the rails. Rule-making as a result of legislation passed in 2015 is under way now.
Those policies will require railroads to work with state agencies in training exercises. Authority and more money was provided to state inspectors to check train crossings and tracks. Communities would also have to be notified by railroads before trains come through carrying oil, to give them a chance to have a response plan in place before the train gets there. Railroads would also have to develop contingency plans in conjunction with state and local officials, to demonstrate they can adequately respond to a spill.
But the trains are still dangerous.
There were no injuries in Friday’s derailment but others have cost lives. In July 2013, a derailment in a small town in Quebec killed 47 people when an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken crude rolled downhill and crashed downtown. More than 30 buildings were destroyed and more had to be demolished after the oil train exploded in a blast that flattened a half-mile area.
“This is a born-yesterday industry,” said Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank. “We know oil trains derail, we know they explode, and we know they kill people.
“Yet we run them through towns and we run them through downtown Seattle, right past the stadiums. We are just not prepared for it and it’s just a matter of time before more people die.”