Politics blog

Oil-by-rail regulations bill clears first House hurdle; Senate weighs study

Staff writerFebruary 4, 2014 


Railroad tank cars carrying ethanol are stored in a Norfolk Southern rail yard in Alexandria, Va., surrounded by homes, schools and businesses, Jan. 13, 2014. The most common type of tank car used to transport flammable ethanol and crude oil has a long history of punctures and ruptures in derailments. Recent fires and explosions in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota have prompted a new review of the cars' safety.

CURTIS TATE — McClatchy-Tribune

Lawmakers in the House and Senate both agree more study is needed to counteract the growing public safety risk posed by increasing shipments of oil by rail tanker cars and marine waters. But the chambers are moving along quite different tracks to deal with a risk that is still hard to quantify.

The House Environment Committee voted 8-to-5 along party lines Tuesday to approve Substitute House Bill 2347, which gives the Department of Ecology new rule-making authority to decide on tug escort requirements for shippers in Grays Harbor and along the Columbia River. 

The measure from Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle also requires oil refineries and recipients of shipments of oil to report quarterly to Ecology on oil shipments by railroad. But the measure was amended to ensure that data kept by Ecology is not released publicly in a way that identifies an individual refinery. 

Her new version of the bill also shifted responsibility for a rail safety study from the governor’s budget office to Washington State University.

Behind the growing danger is the shipment of more flammable forms of crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, and also large oil trains that for the first time began running on tracks in Washington state in the past year. We reported on legislators' concerns previously in this story

The Senate, meanwhile, heard a bill Tuesday from Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale that would require more study of the safety of shipping oil and hazardous materials over land routes as well over water routes. SB 6524 also would put $10 million toward the effort, which Ecology would be asked to complete by year’s end - a timeline that one agency manager said will be difficult.

The studies would consider the capacity of the federal, state, and local governments to respond to spills and identify gaps in the system.

The Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee also gave unanimous approval to a memorial to Congress, asking it to strengthen standards for rail tank cars used in the shipment of oil and other hazardous cargo. Republican Sen. Steve O’Ban of University Place sponsored Senate Joint Memorial 8015

The multiple measures put the Republican-steered Senate and Democrat-controlled House on a likely collision course over the safety issue. The issue has come to the forefront after high profile train derailments led to explosions in Quebec that killed 47 and others in the U.S. 

Farrell said there is urgency to act and that spill responders need better data on rail shipments. 

“I think the goal of the bill is to take action this year,’’ Farrell said, arguing that rulemaking is needed to make sure the state keeps “on top of this changing landscape.’’

Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said she agreed the state must take a look at the growing risks. But she offered amendments that would have patterned the oil-traffic data reporting after a more confidential system in California. But Democrats rejected that with Farrell arguing it tilted the scale too far away from disclosure. 

Ericksen did not say when he plans to move his version of the oil safety measure. But 5 p.m. Friday is the deadline for passing bills out of their initial committees.


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