Now is the time to act to reduce the continued risk of crude oil moving through the region by rail, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said during a visit to Vancouver on Wednesday.
The Washington Democrat and local leaders repeatedly stressed the volatility of the oil itself. Speaking inside Pacific Park Fire Station No. 10 in east Vancouver, the group noted that responders are ill-equipped to handle the kind of fiery derailments and huge explosions that have characterized a string of oil-train incidents across the country recently. In some cases, the fires burned for days after the actual derailment, Cantwell said.
“No amount of foam or fire equipment can put them out,” she said. “The best protection we can offer is prevention.”
Cantwell last month introduced legislation that would immediately ban the use of rail cars considered unsafe for hauling crude oil, and create new volatility standards for the oil itself. The bill would require federal regulators to develop new rules limiting the volatile gas contained in crude that is transported by rail — an important and somewhat overlooked facet of the larger debate over oil train safety, Cantwell said.
Much of the oil that now rolls through Clark County comes from the Bakken shale of North Dakota. Regulators there this month imposed new rules on the volatility of that oil, but critics argue they don’t go far enough. North Dakota, currently in the midst of a historic oil boom, lacks the infrastructure and facilities for more thorough oil stabilization that are commonplace elsewhere.
About two or three oil trains per day now travel through Vancouver on the way to other facilities. A proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver would more than double that number. The project, now under review, has fixed a spotlight firmly on Vancouver.
“Although crude-by-rail is a national issue, we firmly believe that Vancouver is the epicenter of the conversation,” said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.
Wednesday’s gathering also included two local fire chiefs, who said their crews don’t have the resources to respond to a major disaster involving an oil train. BNSF Railway, which carries crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge and Southwest Washington, has offered training to local responders. But that training “just scratches the surface,” said Nick Swinhart, chief of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.
“No first responder is fully prepared for the threat posed by crude oil trains carrying highly volatile oil from North Dakota,” Swinhart said, noting his agency has 54 paid personnel. “The fire resulting from just one exploded oil train car, as you can imagine, would overwhelm our resources very rapidly.”
Concerns about oil train safety go far beyond the oil. Much of the discussion has centered around the tank cars carrying it. Cantwell’s bill would prohibit all DOT-111 and some CPC-1232 model tank cars from hauling crude oil. The move would affect tens of thousands of rail cars currently in use, phasing out older models many believe are inadequate for carrying crude.
About 88 percent of the cars now hauling crude oil in Washington are the CPC-1232 design, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The railroad plans to phase out all of its older DOT-111 cars from moving crude within the next year, he said. It also plans to retrofit its CPC-1232 cars with internal liners during the next three years, he added.
BNSF expects tank cars to improve as designs evolve and federal rules change, Melonas said, and the company welcomes that trend.
“We are in favor of a stronger-designed tank car to move this product,” Melonas said. “In the meantime, we’re taking steps to make sure we’re moving it safely.”
As for whether BNSF supports Cantwell’s bill, Melonas said the company is still evaluating it.
Near the end of Wednesday’s event at the fire station, officials showed Cantwell a large rig equipped with foam tanks and other features. The Vancouver Fire Department acquired the vehicle as mitigation several years ago when Valero, a company operating at the Port of Vancouver, began handling methanol, said Division Chief Steve Eldred.
The Valero site later became NuStar Energy. NuStar has since applied for permits to handle crude oil at the same facility.