WA senators introduce oil-by-rail safety bill

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation

Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation

Chris Thomas, Washington News Service

OLYMPIA, Wash. – On Wednesday, Washington Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray introduced a bill in Congress to improve safety of oil shipments by rail.

It would require thicker tank car walls and safety features, and set limits on how volatile crude oil can be for rail transport. It also would add more rail inspections and a system for reporting close calls.

The bill comes after last month’s series of derailments and explosions. Rebecca Ponzio, oil campaign director with the Washington Environmental Council, says efforts to urge industries to make changes haven’t been sufficient.

“We need safety improvements right now,” says Ponzio. “We’ve seen the results of the accidents, the derailments – it’s just not good enough to say this is going to happen voluntarily. It needs to be required.”

The U.S. Transportation Department predicts 15 mainline derailments this year, and is working on updated standards for tank-car safety that won’t be ready until mid-May.

Most of the cars that carry crude are owned not by the rail companies but by shippers and the oil and gas industry. In response to the new legislation, the American Petroleum Institute said more than 99 percent of crude oil is shipped by rail without a problem.

In Olympia, two bills still are in play for state-level improvements in oil transport safety. One industry-supported bill (SB 5057) focuses on rail transport. Another bill, backed by Gov. Jay Inslee (HB 1449), covers both rail and maritime shipping. Ponzio says her group favors the more comprehensive approach.

“It includes public disclosure requirements – the community has a right to know what is going through our state,” she says. “It includes financial responsibility, requiring the companies that carry the oil through our state are on the hook in case of a spill.”

The state Ecology Department reports that about 8.5 billion gallons of crude oil a year come to Washington, most by tanker or pipeline, but that rail shipment has been on the increase.

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