State, governor work to increase oil-by-rail safety

Gov. Inslee also asks for strengthened regulations at the federal level

Although the federal government often preempts states when it comes to regulating oil-by-rail transportation, Washington state is working to do what it can to prevent the catastrophic oil-train derailments seen elsewhere in North America.

In 2014, when the number of trains carrying volatile Bakken crude through the state skyrocketed, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a directive requiring agencies to prioritize actions to improve public safety and spill prevention associated with transporting oil by rail. He also called on the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission to review all rail crossings on oil train routes.

And in 2015, the Legislature passed Inslee’s legislation giving the UTC and the Department of Ecology greater authority to improve oil-by-rail safety.

Gov. Jay Inslee, from left, BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas and state Utilities and Transportation Commission Chairman David Danner discuss improvements to the railroad crossing near Butler Loop Road in Skamania County during a visit Tuesday by Inslee to the crossing. The state already has paid for improved lights, signs and stop bars for the crossing, and railway gate arms will soon be installed there. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

On Tuesday, the governor visited an oil train crossing in Southwest Washington that had been identified as under-protected by UTC rail safety staff. The crossing, on Skamania Landing Road in Skamania County, intersects with a BNSF Railway track that transports oil through the scenic Columbia River Gorge.

In March, the UTC approved nearly $450,000 in grant funds to make safety upgrades at the crossing. The improvements will add those gate arms and install a new signal system. A few interim upgrades have already been completed, including replacing old lights with more efficient LED lights, new signage, and painted stop bars on the pavement near the crossing.

The main problem with the crossing was that although it had flashing lights, it didn’t have gates, said Tim Homann, a Skamania County engineer.

“We’re always concerned about safety, and that’s the number one issue with this project,” Homann said. “In terms of this particular railroad, it is a busy railroad,” with up to 30 freight trains and two Amtrak passenger trains each day, he added.

The oil train derailment in Mosier, Ore., on June 2, 2016, spilled roughly 42,000 gallons of crude, which was mostly consumed by fire. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The crossing is about 35 miles downstream from Mosier, Ore., where 16 oil tanker cars on a Union Pacific train derailed in June 2016, causing an explosion and fire, the closure of Interstate 84 and a sewer treatment plant, and the two-day evacuation of nearby residents.

The UTC has spent the past several years examining how to prevent incidents like the one in Mosier. In addition to improvements to the Butler crossing, the agency has approved nearly $530,000 for similar improvements in Snohomish County on 48th Avenue and in Spokane County on Millwood’s Marguerite Street.

“With the dramatic increase in the transport of oil by rail, it is more important than ever that we address under-protected rail crossings,” UTC Chairman David Danner said. “The governor’s leadership has made the difference in getting us the resources to do our job. He understands our work and really shares our commitment to safety.”

New state law

The 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act gave the UTC greater inspection and enforcement authority around oil by rail, increased track and hazardous materials inspections, and improved safety at crossings along oil train routes.

It gave the state Department of Ecology the ability to require oil spill contingency planning by railways, meaning that railways are now subject to the same emergency preparedness rules as vessels transporting oil and oil refineries.

The law increased money for prevention and cleanup of oil spills, and it required railroads to notify local officials when oil trains are moving through their areas. It also provided the opportunity for the development of locally based equipment caches for responding to hazardous material spills and for firefighting.

Additionally, it gives Ecology the resources to develop locally tailored Geographic Response Plans along several rail line segments to help minimize impact of spilled oil on sensitive natural, cultural and economic resources during the early hours of a response.

The law also allows the UTC to:

  • Hire more rail inspectors.
  • Enter oil refineries without federal officials to conduct hazardous materials inspections.
  • Give 10 of Washington’s cities the opportunity to participate in the state’s rail crossing inspection program, where they were previously exempted.
  • Adopt minimum safety standards at private railroad crossings along oil-train routes and the authority to inspect those crossings. There are about 500 such crossings in all.

More federal action needed

Inslee has called on the federal government to do more to regulate the safety of oil transported by rail. Last summer, he sent two letters to federal officials requesting immediate action to mitigate the risks of train derailments, oil spills and explosions.

In June, following the oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Ore., Inslee asked then-Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx for six specific safety improvements:

  • Speed up the transition to safer rail cars, with new tank car designs required by 2021.
  • Lower the speed limit for oil trains. Federal guidelines have a 50 mph limit for high-hazard flammable trains, while some railroads voluntarily limit speeds to 35 mph when passing through large cities.
  • Safeguard the electronic braking requirements for oil trains.
  • Prohibit liability caps sought by railroads to shield them from the costs of an oil train disaster, which could leave affected states and communities bearing the costs.
  • Restrict the storage of train cars loaded with crude oil on unused rail tracks.
  • Finalize the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rules that strengthen oil spill response requirements, and ensure that states have the authority to adopt requirements for railroad response plans.

“Federal preemption severely limits our ability to respond to the emerging challenges resulting from increased oil train traffic,” Inslee wrote. “The concerns of the people who live and work near oil train routes can no longer be brushed aside, and the safety policies needed to protect them can no longer be postponed.”

In his July letter to then-Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Sarah Feinberg, Inslee wrote that the FRA inspection standards were “insufficient to protect our communities from the imminent threat of fires, spills, and collisions that result from oil train derailments.”

Feinberg visited Mosier following the derailment, and Union Pacific made an agreement with the federal government that it would conduct walking inspections of its tracks rather than relying on other types of inspections.

It’s unclear how the federal government, under a new administration, will regulate oil-by-rail transportation. Foxx and Feinberg no longer serve in those federal roles and President Donald Trump’s administration has yet to appoint an administrator or a deputy administrator to the FRA.