Ericksen oil-train safety legislation clears state Senate

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

OLYMPIA… After more than a year in preparation, an oil-train safety bill cleared the Washington Senate Monday night, putting the state’s emphasis on emergency preparedness and planning, and leaving open the possibility of further action on state waterways.

“The public has a legitimate reason to be concerned about the safety of crude-by-rail,” said state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. “The trains bring good news for our economy, but they also bring great nervousness to every community along the way. We owe it to the public to make these shipments as safe as we can.

“This is really energy independence done safe and done right.”

Senate Bill 5057 passed the Senate 26-23, with amendments on the floor that brought the legislation closer to a competing proposal that passed the House March 5. Though big differences remain, Ericksen said he hopes lawmakers are recognizing the urgency of action this session and the need to put partisan argument aside. By the latest count, 19 oil trains enter the state each week from the booming oil fields of the Midwest, on their way to the refineries of the Puget Sound area.

During floor debate Monday night, the Senate took a big step toward compromise with the House by requiring advance notice to emergency-response agencies when oil trains are expected to pass. The notice would be provided on a weekly basis to the Department of Ecology and first responders. But a central difference remains: The Senate bill keeps its focus on oil by rail, while the much broader House measure gives state agencies new authority to regulate marine shipments. Washington already regularly updates marine safety rules, the last time in 2011.

“Trains are the issue, not boats,” Ericksen observed. “Our bill launches a study of whether additional maritime regulation is needed – but that’s not the sort of question we should allow state agencies to decide, especially when there is no evidence of need. Why on earth should we allow ourselves to be sidetracked?”

The Senate bill also:

— Requires state and local agencies to prepare response plans for spills of oil and hazardous materials.

— Extends the state oil-spill tax, now levied on marine tanker shipments, to deliveries by rail.

— Increases a state regulatory fee on intrastate rail shipments, raising about $1.5 million a year.

— Requires the state Department of Ecology to make grants to local first-responder agencies, for equipment and training.

— Requires Ecology and the Utilities and Transportation Commission to host an international conference on oil-spill accident prevention and response.

— Gives the UTC authority to regulate and inspect private rail crossings.

The bill’s emphasis on emergency preparedness reflects the fact that the state has little authority over interstate rail transportation, Ericksen noted. Interstate commerce is a federal responsibility.