WASHINGTON — State and federal officials are investigating an oil spill from a railroad tank car at Washington’s largest refinery last November, after a key agency was kept in the dark for nearly a month — and emergency spill responders were not notified at all.
The delayed notification of the spill highlights gaps in communication and enforcement as more crude oil shipments travel by rail.
According to reports reviewed by McClatchy, when the tank car arrived Nov. 5 at the BP Cherry Point refinery, Federal Railroad Administration inspectors discovered oil stains on its sides and wheels. A closer inspection revealed an open valve and a missing plug. The car was also 1,611 gallons short.
Neither the railroad, nor the third-party company that unloaded the oil at the terminal, however, could determine where the missing oil had spilled, making it likely that it had leaked somewhere along the train’s 1,200-mile path between the loading terminal in Dore, N.D., and the refinery, near Ferndale.
The oil train route to Northwest refineries passes through national parks, along rivers and through the region’s population centers.
An oil release of that size from a marine tanker, a refinery or a storage facility would automatically trigger a well-established set of notification requirements that would result in the information about the incident flowing promptly to local, state and federal agencies.
There are state and federal hotlines for reporting an oil spill, yet the November incident was not initially reported to any local or state officials. The Washington state Utilities and Transportation Commission found out on Dec. 3 when it received a copy of the report BNSF Railway had submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Railroads have 30 days to file such reports.
Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said that the train “was not in transit, not on our property and not in our custody” when the spill was detected and that the company submitted the required reports to state and federal regulators. She also said that no one reported evidence of spilled oil along BNSF track, which follows the Columbia River and parts of Puget Sound and passes through at least five of the state’s 10 most populous cities.
Scott Dean, a spokesman for BP, said the company “took this issue very seriously” and notified BNSF and Savage Services, which unloads the tank cars at the refinery. He added that federal regulators confirmed that the company had fulfilled its responsibilities.
The information never reached the Washington state Department of Ecology, which responds to inland oil spills; the U.S. Coast Guard, which responds to oil spills along navigable waterways; or the Whatcom County Unified Emergency Coordination Center. All three first learned of the incident last week from McClatchy.
The report BNSF filed to federal regulators indicates that no local emergency services were notified at the time of the incident.
State law requires railroads to report any hazardous materials release to the state emergency operations center within 30 minutes of learning of the incident. The center’s 24-hour duty officer shares spill information with all levels of government. Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the state Emergency Management Division, said the department has no record of anyone’s calling to report an oil spill from a rail car at the refinery in November.
Federal and state regulators are investigating.
“If we discover that the shipper or the railroad ran afoul of federal safety regulations,” said Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, “we will take appropriate enforcement actions.”
Kathy Hunter, rail safety manager at the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the commission is assisting with the federal investigation.
The Department of Ecology also has launched an investigation.
“There may have been a gap in reporting protocol,” said David Byers, spill response manager for the department. “We’re investigating to determine if there was one.”
The rail industry and its regulators have been working to improve communication with state and local emergency response officials following a series of high-profile oil train derailments and spills in the past few years. Still, the November oil spill shows the kinds of hidden risks that continue to emerge in communities where the oil is transported by rail.
It also has shown enforcement gaps, especially at the state level. Washington state has four inspectors on its payroll who are certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, one each for track, signals, operations and hazardous materials.
The state, however, does not have an inspector for locomotives and equipment. A state inspector would report any oil spill immediately to other state agencies. Had a state inspector been present at the Cherry Point refinery when the oil-stained car arrived in November instead of just federal ones, the state would have been notified sooner.
Jason Lewis, transportation policy adviser with the Utilities and Transportation Commission, said the commission has requested funding to add a fifth inspector.
“Right now, the resources are very thin at the state level,” he said.