Time to act on oil-train safety legislation, Ericksen says

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Oil train on the move. (Uploaded by dhaluza. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. )

OLYMPIA… The case for oil-train safety legislation has been made all the stronger by derailments this week in Ontario and West Virginia, says state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, sponsor of a comprehensive oil-train bill in the Washington State Senate.

“The derailments in Ontario and West Virginia ought to make it clear to everyone that the Legislature needs to take action,” Ericksen said. “We have a bill in the Senate that targets the issue of oil-train safety, without turning it into a political power-grab. It’s about time we passed it.”

Ericksen’s measure, Senate Bill 5057, takes dead aim at oil-train safety issues, while avoiding matters that are preempted by federal law or which have nothing to do with oil trains. The measure provides money to train and equip emergency-response crews, expands state authority over rail-crossing safety, and establishes a workgroup to examine whether new regulations are needed for waterborne transport of oil.

Ericksen’s bill was approved by the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee early in the session and awaits a vote in the Senate Ways and Means Committee before proceeding to the full Senate. Ericksen has pressed the case for oil-train safety legislation during the last two sessions.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

Ericksen is critical of a competing measure in the state House favored by the governor’s office and environmental groups. Their more-expansive proposal gives new authority to state agencies to regulate barges and tanker vessels without legislative approval. HB 1449 also would require advance notification to public agencies whenever an oil train is about to pass. Ericksen observes that railroad schedules are of no practical value to first responders at a time when such trains are commonplace, and the information could easily be misused.

“Rail is the issue, not marine traffic,” Ericksen said. “Rail transportation is a legitimate concern and we ought to do everything we can to improve public safety. But when it comes to shipping we already have one of the strongest regulatory programs in the country, and there is no evidence of a problem. Why on earth do we want to get bogged down in nitty-gritty questions of rulemaking authority at the Department of Ecology on a subject that has nothing to do with rail?

“And I still have trouble understanding why we would want to pump out information about railroad timetables, when hacking is a problem and information can never be made completely secure. If we’re concerned about oil-train safety, the last thing we ought to do is to let the bad guys know that an oil train will be passing by at 5:15.”

Here are the central components of Ericksen’s SB 5057:

  • Requires the Department of Ecology to review and complete oil-spill response plans.
  • Requires Ecology to provide grants to ensure first responders are equipped for spills.
  • Extends the oil-spill tax, currently levied on tanker shipments of crude oil, to include deliveries by rail.
  • Requires Ecology and the Utilities and Transportation Commission to host a symposium on oil spill prevention and response.
  • Modernizes the definition of oil for current tanker-safety programs.
  • Allows first-class cities to opt-in to UTC’s railroad-crossing safety inspection program.
  • Requires local emergency planners to develop hazardous materials plans.
  • Appropriates $10 million from the state Model Toxics Control Account for first responder grants.
  • Allows rail-crossing inspections to be done by certified inspectors employed by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
  • Extends UTC jurisdiction to private rail crossings.
  • Establishes a workgroup to examine whether updates are required in state regulation of maritime transport of oil on the Columbia River and in Grays Harbor. The Department of Ecology would convene the workgroup, with representatives from the oil and rail industries, businesses that receive crude oil in bulk, Grays Harbor and Columbia River safety committees, maritime fire safety associations, the Coast Guard, Columbia River and Grays Harbor public ports and Columbia River pilots.