In Our View: Oil Trains Already Here

Whether or not a controversial terminal is built in Vancouver, safety is paramount

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The need for new safety regulations on oil-bearing trains can be found in the discussion surrounding a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

While many members of the community — including The Columbian’s Editorial Board — have cited safety concerns in opposing the terminal, proponents often point out that oil trains will roll through Southwest Washington whether or not the terminal is built. Those proponents argue that the trains may as well be stopping in Vancouver if they are coming through here anyway. While we don’t believe that argument outweighs the negative impact the terminal would have on local communities, it does highlight the precarious nature of the situation. Trains will be coming through here, and citizens have a vested interest in how those trains are regulated.

The federal government, which has been playing a game of regulatory catch-up during the nation’s oil boom, recently proposed more stringent rules that could be in place by early 2015. The proposals would reduce the allowable speed of trains carrying crude; would improve braking systems on trains; would require improved information about the flammability of crude; and would make tank cars more resistant to leaks following accidents.

According to DOT figures, the number of tank cars carrying crude in the United States has ballooned from 9,500 in 2009 to 415,000 last year. Many of those cars already travel down the Columbia River Gorge, along the river past Washougal and Camas, and through densely populated areas of Vancouver. In other words, safety is a vital concern with or without a local terminal, and there has been no shortage of reminders about that. The most infamous incident occurred last year in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a derailment and explosion killed 47 people. And just last week a train in Seattle derailed, with its crude-bearing cars fortunately remaining upright.

The sudden appearance of long snakes of crude-bearing trains has created unanticipated problems for communities throughout the country and for federal regulators. As U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told The Columbian’s Editorial Board in April: “The industry has grown far greater than our capacity to deal with it, and we need to slow down and get it right.”

Given that reality, safety improvements are paramount. The latest proposals build upon voluntary agreements the federal government reached earlier this year with the railroad industry, but they notably extend safety measures surrounding tank cars. The most far-reaching proposal would call for tank cars to be built with nine-sixteenths-inch shells rather than the current standard of seven-sixteenths-inch. Such thicker cars would greatly increase their weight and likely would reduce the number of cars a train could carry.

Throughout the process, states and local governments have been limited to preparing for the eventuality of a disaster. The U.S. Constitution reserves control of interstate commerce for the federal government, but ensuring public safety must be a collaborative effort between the feds, state and local governments, and the oil and railroad companies. Such cooperation is imperative as Tesoro and Savage companies push for the construction of an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, one that could handle up to 380,000 barrels of crude per day. That proposal is being reviewed by a state agency, and its fate eventually will be determined by Gov. Jay Inslee.

But whether or not the terminal eventually is approved, the safety of oil trains is and will continue to be a concern for local residents.