Washington State fire chiefs demand transparency on crude oil trains – ‘Your industry has sought and gained exemptions to the sunshine laws’Posted by Jim at Thursday, March 26, 2015
By Sydney Brownstone
25 March 2015
(The Stranger) – Earlier this month, the head of a membership group representing firefighting agencies across the state wrote to the CEO of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway company, demanding that the company turn over information it has previously avoided sharing on crude oil shipments through the Pacific Northwest within 30 days. It's one of the strongest statements firefighters in this state have made on oil train safety issues—and speaks to the urgency of the risks at hand.
The Stranger obtained the letter from Oil Check NW, a watchdog group on oil safety in the region.
In the letter, Wayne Senter, executive director of Washington Fire Chiefs, cited four tanker derailments in the last few years—including one last year under Seattle's Magnolia Bridge—as reason for concern. "The WFC is well aware that even if an infinite amount of foam was available, we can only provide defensive firefighting," Senter wrote in the letter.
Senter went on to slam the oil transportation industry's lack of transparency as a clear public safety issue. "Normally we would be able to assess the hazard through right-to-know and other public documents; however, your industry has sought and gained exemptions to these sunshine laws," the letter reads. "This exemption does not mean that your industry is exempt from taking reasonable steps to ensure catastrophic incidents do not occur." [more]
“These things are bombs. We don’t know when they’re gonna go off, but they’re gonna go off.”
By Casey Jaywork
24 March 2015
(Seattle Weekly) – Seven hundred. That’s the number of hazardous-spill reporting violations that railway giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) has racked up with state regulators. Since November.
In a report released Thursday, Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) revealed that out of 16 reportable spills that BNSF had in Washington from November 2014 through February, BNSF was late or absent in reporting all but two of them—so late and so absent that those 14 incidents snowballed into 700 individual violations, worth up to $1,000 in fines apiece.
For City Council member Mike O’Brien, this is not reassuring. “What it signals to me is kind of a behavior pattern from Burlington Northern,” he says, a sort of “casualness” toward regulation. “When you take [an] already dangerous, intrinsically explosive material that you’re bringing through our community and combine it with a company that seems to be comfortable violating the laws—I worry about that mix.”
That mix is a relatively new worry for O’Brien and many others. Historically, about 90 percent of Washington’s imported crude oil has come in via boat, mostly from Alaska. But in the past decade Alaskan imports have slumped, while the quantity of crude shipped by train (and pipeline) has ballooned, largely thanks to drilling in North Dakota’s Bakken formation. This swell of new crude from the Midwest “has strained the capacity of existing oil-pipeline infrastructure,” the state Department of Ecology wrote last year, “and caused a sudden shift in the supply chain to transport by rail.”
Cue the choo-choo. Railroad companies like BNSF have an already-built transportation infrastructure to haul crude from North Dakota to refineries and seaports in the Pacific Northwest, and they have been using it. Of all the crude oil imported into Washington, the percentage borne on railroads has jumped from zero in 2011 to six percent in 2012 and more than eight percent in 2013. Last year, an average of 19 oil trains trundled through Washington every week, carrying 57 million gallons of crude spread throughout 1,900 tanker cars. The Department of Ecology estimates that, depending on how many of five currently proposed oil-transport facilities are built and how much oil Oregon and California want to import, the number of trains could triple in five years and sextuple in 20.
Bottom line: Seattle is seeing a lot of new oil trains. And the UTC’s report has raised concerns among Seattleites who were already skeptical of this new influx of crude-by-rail.
“Any individual violation is not a big deal,” says Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute, a green think tank. “But … it looks like there is a pattern emerging here where they may be trying to keep the public in the dark about instances where the public has been exposed to potentially dangerous substances.” As evidence of that pattern, he points to a 2011 incident in which a BNSF tanker jumped the track and spilled its contents into Puget Sound. Emergency responders were unable to reach BNSF for hours, “plac[ing] initial … responders in jeopardy,” the Department of Ecology later reported.
Fortunately, that spilled tanker was carrying lye, not oil. But for de Place, BNSF’s clumsy response just goes to show that Washington’s been kept safe by luck, not policy.
“Oil trains are fundamentally, structurally, by their nature, unsafe,” he says. “These things are bombs. We don’t know when they’re gonna go off, but they’re gonna go off. And if they happen in an urban area, get the body bags ready.” And get the lawyers ready, too. While BNSF’s liability insurance appears to max out around $1 billion (their press person declined to give a hard number, saying that “BNSF currently purchases what the market offers”), de Place estimates the cost of a worst-case scenario to be in the tens of billions of dollars.
“To me, that is batshit crazy,” de Place says. “I can’t imagine a clearer signal from the private marketplace that something is fundamentally unsound” than commercial insurers refusing to insure it. [more]