State oil trains legislation is a start

Washington lawmakers took a long-awaited step forward last month to address the risks posed by oil shipped in railroad tank cars. The derailment and explosion of 10 oil tanker cars in a small North Dakota town Wednesday morning was a fresh reminder that our country’s regulators still are racing to catch up with the dangers of this fast-growing economic boom.

Oil from the Bakken formation — using fracking to extract it — is helping wean the U.S. off foreign oil. But the risks have yet to be fully understood, let alone corralled.

The oil-train measure, House Bill 1449, was a political compromise that passed the Senate unanimously and passed in the state House with only one dissenting vote.

The bill didn’t do everything Gov. Jay Inslee and environmentalists wanted, but it is a good start in preparing for the state’s response to inevitable spills. Inslee may sign it in the next two weeks.

So far, our state has avoided major explosions or spills like this week’s derailment in Heimdal, N.D. It was nearly two years ago that a fiery derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and put the oil trains issue firmly on the political map.

HB 1449 requires weekly notices to the Department of Ecology of anticipated shipments of oil, and it requires railroads to have state-approved contingency plans for spills. The bill also extends the state’s per-barrel oil tax to include rail and pipeline shipments, which already was levied on oil brought into the state by ship. More of this money would be earmarked for spill cleanups.

The bill also lets the state Pilotage Commission impose new rules for transporting crude oil in Grays Harbor, if terminals are ultimately sited there. And it sets up an Ecology-led study group to assess rule changes for oil transported over the Columbia River.

The measure also gives new powers to the Utilities and Transportation Commission to inspect private property where oil is delivered, and it lets Ecology distribute grants to emergency response agencies for safety and spill equipment.

Railroads are federally regulated, and the Legislature was barred from imposing requirements on tank cars. But the U.S. Department of Transportation — in tandem with counterparts in Canada — announced new safety rules on May 1 to gradually phase out the most vulnerable of oil-tank cars and to impose stricter speed limits on oil trains.

Unfortunately, the new federal rules allow the most vulnerable kind of tanker — the DOT-111 — to remain in operation until 2020 or longer. But the new rules do reduce speed limits for long trains that carry oil.

Under the new federal rules, tank cars built after Oct. 1 this year must be of a new-generation design known as DOT-117. These have thicker steel shells, large metal shields at each end, and better outlet valves at the bottom. By 2020, all oil must be hauled in the newer tankers or in retrofitted versions of the DOT-111 or CPC-1232.

But the federal regulations don’t yet take into account the volatility of crude oil extracted from the Bakken formation of North Dakota and Montana.

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, both Washington Democrats, have joined others in introducing the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act that would immediately halt use of older tankers most at greater risk of puncturing and catching fire in a derailment.

Their legislation, which is looking urgently more necessary as more trains explode, requires the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to write rules that limit volatility in crude shipments.

Clearly, the state legislation is just a start.