The recent derailment of a crude oil train in Oregon along the scenic Columbia River Gorge brought the sobering reality of oil train threats to our shared waterfront. While this derailment was not the worst-case scenario for which we have been preparing, it was too close for comfort.
The increase in Canadian and domestic oil production has led to a dramatic, rapid increase in oil transport by rail through Washington state. In the past few years, we have seen oil train derailments in 10 states and three Canadian provinces. Some have resulted in explosions and fires, others in evacuations of entire communities.
Our state has been taking action on oil train safety since the 2013 explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, destroyed the town’s center and spilled 1.6 million gallons of oil.
Last year, we passed legislation to increase track and hazardous-materials inspections, require oil spill-contingency plans, increase funding for prevention and cleanup of oil spills, require railroads to notify local officials when oil trains are moving through their areas, and improve safety at crossings along oil train routes.
But states are limited in what we can do. Railroads engage in interstate commerce, which means the buck stops with the federal government. While federal regulators acknowledge the risks of crude-by-rail, they have taken few steps toward increasing safety. The combination of federal pre-emption and federal inaction is unacceptable. It is time — once and for all — to address the risks posed by oil trains.
To protect the natural, cultural and recreational resources of the Columbia River Gorge, and all communities across Washington and our country, we must urge Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to implement the strongest possible measures that will ensure the safe transportation of Bakken crude:
• The USDOT and shippers must speed up the transition to safer cars. Crude oil, particularly Bakken crude, is volatile. Many current tank cars are not strong enough to protect volatile contents from the heat of a fire or the impact of a collision. Yet USDOT has allowed tank car manufacturers a decade to retire existing fleets and introduce a new tank car design. We can cut that timeline in half.
• Federal authorities must establish lower speed limits. Currently, for “high-hazard flammable trains,” that’s 50 mph. While some railroads voluntarily limit speeds to 35 mph for oil trains in large cities, no such commitments extend to rural areas or communities the size of Mosier, Ore., the site of the latest derailment.
• Federal authorities must ensure that electronic braking requirements outlined in USDOT’s recent tank car rule remain in effect despite litigation and the pending cost-benefit analysis required by Congress.
• States need assurance that the costs of these disasters are not borne by our communities. The railroads continue to seek liability caps to shield themselves from these costs.
• The federal government must restrict the use of railroad tracks for storage of volatile materials. At times, thousands of tank cars loaded with crude oil are used for storage, sitting unattended for months on unused track. Residents of Whatcom County recently told state regulators they had serious safety concerns regarding unattended oil cars sitting within 1,200 feet of an elementary school.
• USDOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration needs to finalize rules that expand and strengthen requirements for railroad oil spill response plans.
While we wait for federal regulators, Congress can take action. I applaud Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for being an outspoken champion of increased oil train safety. She has put forth a proposal Congress could act on now that would significantly bolster oil train safety and accountability.
Our federal partners need to demonstrate they understand that while oil train commerce is interstate, the health, safety, and environmental consequences are local.
The concerns of the people who live and work near oil train routes can no longer be brushed aside, and the safety policies needed to protect them can no longer be postponed.
Jay Inslee is governor of Washington. He can be reached at fortress.wa.gov/es/governor.