Forgive Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for running out of patience on this one. After all, it has been a year since she told The Columbian’s Editorial Board: “The industry has grown far greater than our capacity to deal with it.”
Cantwell was talking about the vast growth in the transportation of oil by train. How vast? In 2011, there were virtually no oil trains traveling through Washington, and in 2013 about 17 million barrels moved through the state. The number has only increased since then, as anybody who has been paying attention in Clark County can attest, but it is only now that officials are giving the issue the attention it requires.
Cantwell, weary of waiting for effective federal action, announced this week that she will introduce legislation calling for stricter regulations on oil trains and a swifter phase-out of older tankers. She also impressed upon U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx that “enormous increases in volume of oil trains and what we’re doing on safety” are issues of “utmost importance to the people of the Northwest.” That is particularly true in Clark County, where the Port of Vancouver is seeking to build the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in conjunction with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Yet, even if that facility is not eventually approved by Gov. Jay Inslee, the number of oil trains traveling through the county likely will increase as they head to other facilities in the state.
Federal regulators are expected to unveil tougher rules for oil trains and tanker cars in May. But Cantwell told Foxx: “I want to be clear and on the record: I will be introducing legislation to support a thicker hull and quicker phase-out than what is currently proposed. We are not moving fast enough. I look forward to seeing your rule, but we are going to come out with tougher standards.”
The senator’s actions are to be commended. One of the latest examples of the need for safety reforms arrived on Feb. 16, when 28 cars of a 109-car train derailed near Mount Carbon, W.Va. Of those, 19 cars caught fire and several exploded, leaving officials with no choice but to let the fire burn itself out over the course of several days. More than 100 residents were kept out of their home for four days.
Federal legislation alone, however, will not be enough to improve safety for local residents. The Washington Legislature, which is considering House Bill 1449 and Senate Bill 5087, will play a role in making an inherently unsafe industry as secure as it possibly can be. The bills would require railroads to create oil spill response plans, and would increase the Oil Spill Administration Tax from 4 cents per barrel to 10 cents while extending the tax to oil received by rail or pipeline. The inexplicable fact that railroads are not yet required to have detailed spill response plans exemplifies the manner in which the industry has outpaced safety regulations.
That is the kind of thing Sen. Cantwell was talking about a year ago. Some strides have been made as the rail industry upgrades its fleet of tanker cars, but a growing string of catastrophes demonstrates the need for increased vigilance. Further improvements will require stricter regulation at both the federal level and the state level, and one of the highest priorities should be ensuring that oil and rail companies are the ones paying for cleanup in the wake of disaster, not taxpayers. Most of this should seem self-evident, but the public and government officials have been slow to react to the necessities of a growing oil-by-rail industry. When it comes to public safety, our patience runs thin.