RICHLAND, Wash. – Pacific Northwest refineries have been getting crude oil for years from tankers and pipelines. Last September, trains began shipping crude oil into the region by rail.
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Washington’s emergency responders are learning how to deal with the Northwest’s latest method of transporting crude oil.
Crews from the state Department of Ecology spent Wednesday afternoon on the banks of the Columbia River decked out in hazmat suits and respirators. They were practicing how to clean up crude oil spilled from a train.
Curt Hart, with the Department of Ecology, said last year 50 trains carrying crude oil came into the Northwest from North Dakota and Montana. This year officials expect from 100-150 oil trains.
“With the number of trains that are coming to our state, the exponential rise in the number of trains carrying crude oil, that all does increase the risk,” Hart said.
Watch: A Crude Oil Spill Drill
Responders worry if a crude oil train derails, the spill could reach waterways. Crude oil contains carcinogens and toxic chemicals like benzene.
Benzene can be harmful for people to breathe. That’s why responders must sample air quality along with water quality.
Hart said responders are most concerned about an oil spill in eastern Washington reaching waterways, like the Columbia River.
“Oil is an environmental toxin,” Hart said. “As soon as it hits the water it starts doing environmental damage. It degrades water quality. It threatens fish and wildlife. A big oil spill could shut down rivers, halting vessel traffic, which then has economic ripples through it.”
Hart said trains carrying crude oil hold 3.5 million gallons of crude oil. During the training exercise, responders also visited a rail yard in Pasco, Wash., to learn more about the rail cars carrying crude oil.
Crude oil refineries in the Northwest are building terminals to accept shipments delivered by rail.
The department estimates a major crude oil spill at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, or Puget Sound could cost Washington’s economy $10.5 billion. That would include disruptions to maritime and port traffic, recreational activities, plus effects on fish, wildlife, and shellfish.
The department hasn’t calculated how much a spill in Eastern Washington or the Columbia River would cost.