Last month, in a meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., succinctly distilled a complicated issue: “This industry has grown far greater than our capacity to deal with it, and we need to slow down and get it right.”
Cantwell had been asked about the micro issue of an oil-terminal proposal at the Port of Vancouver and the macro issue of a rapid increase in oil-by-rail transportation throughout the nation. The boom of a vast yield of oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota has presented problems more quickly than regulators have been able to deal with them.
Last week, the federal Department of Transportation issued an emergency order requiring railroads to notify local emergency responders when oil shipments travel through their region. Trains with more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude — about 35 tank cars — must provide state emergency commissions with detailed information about the shipments. Typically, oil trains carry 100 cars or more.
All of this is pertinent to Southwest Washington. Last year, Port of Vancouver officials approved a deal with Tesoro and Savage companies to build a terminal that could handle up to 380,000 barrels — nearly 16 million gallons — of oil per day. Since then, the safety of crude shipments has become a cause célèbre for this area, as a spate of derailments throughout North America has awakened residents to the potential hazards. Most famously, a derailment and explosion last year in Canada killed 47 people and obliterated much of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Most recently, an April 30 derailment in Lynchburg, Va., spilled 30,000 gallons of crude into the James River and forced mass evacuations.
All of which makes the federal government’s emergency order long overdue. The emergency arrived when the nation first saw a precipitous spike in crude shipments. And when trains started exploding. And when cities found themselves in harm’s way. The emergency arrived when it became clear that regulations are not adequate for the inherent dangers. Recent accidents “have demonstrated the need for emergency action to address unsafe conditions or practices in the shipment of crude oil by rail,” the Department of Transportation declared.
And while the federal government is right to insist upon notification of local officials, it has been slow to address concerns over the rail cars being used to transport the oil. Port of Vancouver CEO Todd Coleman said port officials are pressing federal authorities to implement stricter safety regulations. It is a pragmatic stance by Coleman, who understands that only the tightest regulations will give the project any hope of approval from the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council and from Gov. Jay Inslee, but that stance must be echoed by oil and rail companies.
As it stands, the lax oversight of a dangerous industry presents too much risk to residents in Vancouver and other cities along the rail route. As U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently told Congress, “We have a million shipments of hazardous materials moving around this country every day, and we have 50 inspectors.” Foxx added that regulators are working as quickly as possible to put tougher tanker car regulations in place.
In other words, such regulations are not yet in place, and there is no timetable for their implementation. For now, the danger of a steady stream of oil trains remains too great for a densely populated area such as Vancouver. For now, the federal government needs to, as Cantwell implored, slow this down and get it right.