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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Counts on oil trains dribble out

Data on shipping crude emerges slowly as laws force railroads to report


About 10,600 rail cars of crude oil entered Clark County through the Columbia River Gorge from July 2012 through June 2013, according to a BNSF Railway spreadsheet.

About 7.2 million barrels of crude oil traveled by rail through Clark County in the year between July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013, according to information newly released to The Columbian by Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

Much more crude is likely to be headed our way, with or without state approval of an oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver. After all, the county is located on a key rail line to at least 10 Washington and Oregon communities where new oil facilities are planned, proposed, under construction or already operating.

Until now, the public has been in the dark about how much crude is actually on the rails.

The state Department of Ecology’s best estimate is that nearly 17 million barrels of oil were hauled across the state by rail in 2013. That’s up roughly 40 percent in one year. Before 2012, virtually all of the state’s oil arrived by way of pipeline or marine vessel.

About 10,600 rail cars of crude oil entered Clark County through the Columbia River Gorge from July 2012 through June 2013, according to a BNSF Railway spreadsheet.

Fred Millar, a Virginia-based independent consultant to city governments on chemical safety and railroad transportation, believes the public must understand the risks it faces from the movement of crude and other hazardous materials if it’s going to make informed decisions about how to prepare and respond. “How are you going to have adequate emergency response plans in your town if the public has no idea how risky it is?” he said. “We have to operate on risk information. We have to tell people what the risks are.”

Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency had asked railroads in 2010 and 2012 for information about hazardous materials in order to prepare for possible spills. BNSF Railway, which is transporting most of the volatile Bakken crude oil traveling through Washington, has so far been willing to say publicly only that an average of one to one-and-a-half unit-trains of crude oil travel through the Pacific Northwest per day.

But according to the spreadsheet it supplied to CRESA, about 10,600 rail cars of crude entered Clark County through the Columbia River Gorge in the 12 months from July 2012 to June 2013. Each car holds about 680 barrels, according to the state Department of Ecology; a barrel of oil holds 42 gallons.

In a separate public-disclosure request, The Columbian also is seeking oil-train data from the state Emergency Response Commission. That request is for more detailed reports — including crude volumes, county-by-county routes and numbers of trains — submitted to the state by railroads under a May 7 emergency order issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

A string of oil-train calamities in the past year, news of puncture-prone tank cars and federal warnings of the highly volatile crude coming out of the Bakken region in North Dakota have heightened public safety concerns.

Intensifying worries in Clark County is a proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil-by-rail transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver capable of handling 380,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day. After hauling the oil to the port and storing it, the companies intend to load the crude onto ships bound for U.S. refineries.

Inslee orders state review

Just last week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered Ecology to work with other state agencies, the Federal Railroad Administration and tribal governments to “identify data and information gaps that hinder improvements in public safety and spill prevention and response.”

The governor expects to receive a report in October.

Meanwhile, railroads have sought to prevent the release of oil-train data to the public, even as some states, including Washington, say such secrecy conflicts with public disclosure laws.

BNSF says it shares oil-train data only with those who have a “need to know.”

“We think it is very important that those responsible for security and emergency planning have such information to ensure that proper planning and training are in place for public safety, but we also continue to urge discretion in the wider distribution of specific details,” Courtney Wallace, a BNSF spokeswoman, said in an email to the Columbian.

“BNSF has long been willing to confirm what commodities may be moving through a community with local emergency responders and has long conducted training exercises to help them adequately prepare,” she said. “There are no secrets in that.”

Indeed, BNSF shared information about hazardous materials traveling by rail through Clark County at CRESA’s request. The agency asked for the same details from Union Pacific Corp.

The Columbian on April 3 requested that information from CRESA under the state’s open records act.

CRESA initially supplied spreadsheets with all the information redacted, citing protection for sensitive security information. The Columbian later limited its request to information about crude oil, which is not classified as a sensitive security commodity, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Union Pacific supplied details on hazardous materials transported only for 2010, and the list did not include crude. Nonetheless, when Taylor Hallvik, the Clark County deputy prosecutor handling the newspaper’s records request, alerted Union Pacific that such information would be subject to the state’s public records act, Union Pacific insisted it wasn’t.

“We must insist that you refrain from unauthorized disclosure of this information or return it (including all copies) to the railroad immediately,” wrote Rami S. Hanash, senior environmental compliance counsel for Union Pacific.

Railroads fight release

The railroads have taken a similar attitude toward information released to the states under the U.S. Department of Transportation May 7 emergency order requiring railroads to supply state Emergency Response Commissions with the county-by-county routes, volumes and numbers of trains hauling 1 million or more gallons of crude extracted from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada.

Railroads that fail to comply with the order face civil penalties of up to $175,000 for each violation or for each day they’re found to be in violation.

The U.S. DOT issued the order, along with other recent stepped-up safety protocols, with the expectation that states would share the Bakken oil-train data only with emergency response officials — not the public.

Aiming to make sure of that, BNSF and Union Pacific in late May sent the Washington state Emergency Response Commission confidentiality agreements. The state refused to sign them, saying they conflicted with the state’s public disclosure law.

Instead, the state proposed an alternative agreement under which the railroads would be allowed to seek a protective order in court to prevent the information from being released to the public.

The federal transportation department’s emergency order took effect June 6.

Since then, The Columbian has filed a public disclosure request with the state Emergency Response Commission seeking reports of Bakken oil-train shipments. Chris Barnes, public records officer for the Washington Military Department, which administers the state’s Emergency Response Commission, said the reports will be released to the newspaper later this month, if the railroads choose not to seek a court injunction.

Mark Stewart, a spokesman for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division said the railroads “would have to argue that our public records law provides them with some sort of exemption, which we have not found at this point.”

Although the U.S. transportation department says it believes the Bakken oil-train data should remain confidential, Stewart said, “we have made inquiries to DOT and have not seen any federal law or regulation that says this information is confidential.”

As to the Columbian’s request for records from CRESA, BNSF and Union Pacific had until Monday to seek a court injunction to block the release of the information to the newspaper. Neither railroad sought such action, so the oil-train information was released.

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