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Report Shows 1,500 Oil Train Cars Per Week Through Washington


Workers prepare oil trains for unloading at the Tesoro Refinery north of Seattle.

Workers prepare oil trains for unloading at the Tesoro Refinery north of Seattle.

Courtesy of Tesoro

In the final three months of 2016, railroads hauled 618 million gallons of oil through Washington. That means more than 1,500 rail cars every week hauling flammable crude through the state.

Those numbers come from new reports from the Washington Department of Ecology, which for the first time detail what kinds of oil are moving through which communities in the state, and in what amounts. 

The new quarterly reports are the first of their kind. In 2015, Washington passed the Oil Transportation Safety Act, which greatly expanded the state’s oversight of oil trains. Previously, railroads were required under an emergency order to inform states only of Bakken crude shipments larger than one million gallons. The new state rule gathers data not from railroads themselves but from refineries and terminals that accept oil shipments.

Communities along rail lines now know better what they should prepare for, said Jase Brooks, who wrote the rule for the Washington Department of Ecology.

“This is the most detailed and complete information that we have about the picture of oil movement and the risk picture associated with that. So this is a really wonderful, wonderful dat for Washington,” Brooks said.

These and future reports will be used in determining what equipment and training are most needed and where, Brook said.

The new reports also detail for the first time that about six percent of all oil shipments through Washington are Canadian crude oil. The rest are lighter crude from North Dakota.

Rebecca Ponzio of the Washington Environmental Council said she and other environmentalists had long been concerned about shipments of Canadian crude, which the state’s oil spill response planners say is heavy and difficult to contain and clean when it spills.

“Having this information starts to empower us as community members as well as the elected officials and emergency responders to better understand what the threat is and start seeing trends,” Ponzio said. 

Ponzio also said the new details would show whether any facilities in Washington will begin exporting crude oil, after Congress lifted a ban on such exports in late 2015.

Railroads previously resisted the release of the information contained in Ecology’s new reports, citing security reasons and trade secrets. A spokesman for BNSF Railway, the largest carrier of oil by rail in Washington, said the railroad provides information on hazardous materials to first responders, such as fire departments along rail lines.

“We continue to provide information to first responders to help them prepare and respond, this includes training that is specific to crude by rail,” BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. We have long provided information to first responders. This has been our long-standing approach to all hazardous materials that we move.”

Oregon lawmakers, after rejecting a bill to increase oil train oversight in 2015, are considering a similar bill to increase the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s regulatory authority over oil train spill response.

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