Dealing with the Dangers of Oil Trains

May 14, 2014 00:17 by Ryan

With the recent emphasis on the dangers of transporting volatile Bakken crude oil by train, it’s important to point out that we on the City Council are cognizant of some of these dangers, and have been working to educate ourselves and look for opportunities to protect our community. We already have one refinery, Tesoro, receiving a 100-car oil train each day. The other Anacortes refinery, Shell, is currently engaged in permitting its own facility.

oil-trains-roy-luckIn February, Mayor Gere and Councilmembers Eric Johnson, Liz Lovelett, and I attended a rail safety roundtable with Congressman Rick Larsen. The mayors of Burlington and Mount Vernon, County Commissioner Ron Wesen, and Department of Emergency Management and fire officials also attended. Congressman Larsen was well-versed in many of the safety and environmental issues around the transport of oil by rail and briefed us on the agreement brokered by US DOT with railroads to lower speeds to 40 mph near and within very large cities, to conduct an additional track inspection per year, and provide $5 million nationally for additional first responder training. Each of the participants brought a number of concerns to the table, with the mayor of Burlington especially focused on the aging railroad bridge over the Skagit River—a bridge just upstream from the intake for the City of Anacortes’s water treatment plant.

During the legislative session, Councilmember Lovelett and I signed on to a letter in support of HB 2347, which would have, among other things, required oil refineries to report the number of rail cars and type and volume of oil they are receiving, and the routes that the rail cars are taking to the refineries, and directed the Office of Financial Management to conduct a study of the State's capacity to respond to oil train accidents. The bill died in the Senate, but will be considered again next year.

In April, first responders from Mount Vernon, Burlington, and Skagit County Department of Emergency Management performed a tabletop oil spill response drill. These exercises help identify additional needs and strategies for responses.

At last week’s City Council meeting, we received a courtesy presentation from the general manager of Shell Puget Sound Refinery on their proposed rail facility at March Point. (The Anacortes refineries are not inside the city limits, so permitting is handled by the County, not the City of Anacortes.) We were generally impressed by the safety measures Shell is designing into their new facility, and Shell committed at the meeting to fully complying with the latest federal standards for rail car design at the time its facility is built, but we still had many unanswered questions about the rail transport itself. Railroads are the jurisdiction of the federal government, not the city or state, and that’s where we need to focus our efforts at achieving regulation that will prevent spills and explosions.

To that end, Councilmember Lovelett and I have drafted a resolution that would add our voice to the growing list of communities (including Bellingham, Seattle, Spokane, and Whatcom County) that have passed resolutions urging federal regulators to adopt strict rules governing the types of rail cars allowed to transport Bakken crude oil. The resolution as drafted also urges required third-party inspections of critical rail infrastructure—such as the Skagit River bridge and the Swinomish Channel swing bridge—and disclosure of those structural inspections to local communities.

The City Council will consider the resolution next week at its meeting Monday night at 7pm. It’s our hope that the Council’s adoption of the resolution will spur the federal government to action, before more refinery rail facilities are permitted, and before more railcars are purchased that don’t meet the standards required to prevent spills and explosions.

Update: the City Council adopted Resolution 1889 on July 21, 2014.

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