Cities eye moves involving oil trains

More oversight, request for restrictions up for discussion

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In December, the city of Vancouver sent a letter to the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council outlining more than 100 areas of concern it wants the agency to include in its environmental impact review of the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

The city’s concerns included potential oil spills, fiery train derailments, train-traffic impacts on neighborhoods, detrimental impacts to the waterfront redevelopment plan and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the city struck a neutral stance in its letter, saying it encourages the EFSEC to “require a full and comprehensive analysis” of the project’s impacts.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver City Council has indicated it will enter into the EFSEC process as an intervenor, which would allow the city to present evidence and witnesses during the permitting process. But the city has yet to take a formal position on the oil terminal, which would be capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day.

SEATTLE — Concerned about fire and other safety issues, cities in Washington state are eyeing increased oversight of oil trains that rumble through communities.

On Tuesday, a Seattle City Council committee is expected to discuss a resolution asking railway companies to consider restricting oil shipments through the city until further study. It also plans to consider calling for a statewide moratorium on oil-by-rail projects.

"The safety of our city and state are what is ultimately important here," Seattle Mayor Murray said. A vote of the full council is expected next Monday.

The meeting is set days after federal regulators announced tougher testing involving the flammability of crude oil before it is shipped by rail. The move came in response to a string of train accidents since last summer involving oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.

In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

The cities of Bellingham and Spokane passed resolutions calling for tougher scrutiny of oil shipments. In Olympia, state lawmakers at odds over how best to prepare for increasing oil trains said they're working to reach an agreement before the legislative session ends next week.

The federal government regulates interstate railroad commerce. State and local officials say they need

to be prepared as the trains cut through heavily populated cities.

State and county regulators are starting to review three oil terminal projects that could bring millions of gallons of crude oil a day through the state.

The largest, proposed at the Port of Vancouver, could handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil a day. The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is deciding what should be studied during the environmental review of the $110 million project by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos.

Two other projects are proposed at Grays Harbor. A project by Westway could accept up to 9.6 million barrels of oil a year, or about one train every three days. Imperium Renewables' proposed expansion would add up to nine new storage tanks to store an additional 720,000 barrels.

One train typically has about 100 tanker cars, each carrying about 28,000 gallons.

Trains currently carry oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota through Spokane, the Tri-Cities, along the Columbia River and up the Interstate 5 corridor.

"We need to know what's happening and be able to prepare for it," said Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who sponsored House Bill 2347, an oil transportation safety bill that would, among other things, require shippers to report information to the public.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications committee, didn't give the bill a hearing before a deadline Friday. Instead, the Ferndale Republican said he is working on getting bi-partisan support on a new measure.

"It's a quickly moving field and we're going to stay on top of it," said Ericksen, whose own bill on oil trains, Senate Bill 6524, failed to advance last month.

Any new bill would likely include a provision to extend a tax of 5 cents a barrel to oil arriving by rail that pays for state oil spill response and preparedness.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, also introduced a new bill on oil transportation safety, Senate Bill 6576.

Major sticking points include reporting requirements and whether to require tug escorts for oil tankers in Grays Harbor and on the Columbia River. Democrats and environmental groups want information to be reported to the public, and want to give the Department of Ecology authority to adopt rules on tug escorts.

"People aren't aware of potential safety and environmental impacts," said Clifford Traisman, state lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and the Washington Conservation Voters.

Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association said the information is sensitive and proprietary.

"This is a very competitive industry, and we want to keep that information that would be reported confidential," he added.