NPR Story
1:49 pm
Wed January 15, 2014

WA Environmental Groups' Legislative Focus: Oil Trains

Oil train safety tops the list of priorities for environmental groups, which outlined their goals Wednesday for Washington's new legislative session.

Right now, rail companies share little information with state agencies that would respond if a train derailed in the Pacific Northwest. Environmental groups would like the Washington Legislature to change that. It's 60-day session got underway this week.

“What we’re looking at with this legislation is: What is it that Washington state can do? How do we start to get a handle on the major changes that are happening in our state?” said Darcy Nonemacher, legislative director for Washington Environmental Council.

The Environmental Priorities Coalition is proposing four components in what they’re calling the Oil Transportation Safety Act.

1. Right-to-know infrastructure

This would make oil refineries and terminals report on a quarterly basis to the Department of Ecology:

“That would be publicly available, available for first responders and local governments to get a better handle on what is it that is moving through the state,” Nonemacher said.

2. More tugboat escorts

Right now the Department of Ecology has a requirement for oil tankers in Puget Sound to have one tugboat escort. The coalition would like the department to be able to add one or more tug escorts in other places around the state, like Gray’s Harbor and along the Columbia River.

3. Better emergency response plans

The coalition would like state, local, and federal spill response plans to be evaluated. That’s so vulnerable places could be better prepared.

Some oil spill prevention measures are in place already Puget Sound, much of it designed for ships transporting Alaskan crude. The BNSF Railway has also conducted safety training in areas around Washington and Oregon.

Crude Oil Spill Drill from EarthFix on Vimeo.

“There are huge gaps in our oil spill prevention system in the outer coast, on the Columbia River. And now that we see more oil coming by rail, the inland communities like Spokane and the Tri-Cities are now in the discussion about oil accident and spill prevention,” Nonemacher said.

4. Increased penalties for unsafe tugboats and barges

Navigation in places like Puget Sound can be difficult. This would impose harsher penalties for unsafe practices, like putting boats on autopilot, in areas where operators should pay more attention.

The groups acknowledge that it may be a fight to pass this type of reform.

“These are fundamental policy questions that need to be addressed. It will take a multiyear effort to get where we need to go,” said Cliff Traisman, state lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and Washington Environmental Council.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, and Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, are sponsoring the Oil Transportation Safety Act.

The coalition is also proposing legislation to eliminate a tax exemption used by oil companies, which was originally intended to benefit sawmills when it was created in 1949.

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