Washington state has no comprehensive plan if oil trains crash

by: Kevin McCarty Updated:

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They are called petroleum pipelines on wheels -- trains pulling 100-110 tanker cars filled with crude oil from North Dakota and Canada.  Each train transports around 3 million gallons of raw crude oil and they move right next to sensitive waterways in Washington state like the Snake and Columbia rivers as well as long stretches of Puget Sound.

If an oil train were to derail, the tanker cars could end up crashing into the water, spilling thousands, even tens of thousands of gallons of oil. As of now, there is no comprehensive plan to get spill response teams in place to deal with a potential environmental disaster.

“The damage would be almost unimaginable,” said Dan Serres of Columbia River Keeper, an environmental watchdog organization based in Portland.

Under current emergency plans in the event of a derailment and spill the first call would go to the fire department closest to the spill. From there, spill response teams would be assembled from the nearest location which could be miles away.  The State Department of Ecology said, for instance, along the Snake and Columbia rivers there is virtually no emergency resources between Spokane and Yakima. Getting crews in place could take hours.  

“Minutes count, hours count,” said Dave Byers with the DOE’s Spills Program.  During that time oil could be flowing into the water as crews scramble to get into place.

“So if there was a derailment, if there was a bog spill, we’d see that oil in the water and that would impact everyone downstream,” said Serres.

Washington’s ports have a robust response program in place for spills from oil tankers in several ports on Puget Sound. But resources are spotty along the waterfronts where the trains run alongside the water over long stretches of track.

“The rail plan isn’t anywhere near as prepared with equipment, trained personnel, drilling and other systems in place that compares to the maritime response system,” Byers said.

As of now an average of one to two oil trains travel through Washington state each day. That number is expected to increase rapidly. At least 10 shipping terminals and refineries are either operating or in the planning stages along Puget Sound, the Columbia River and the Pacific coast.

“We’re looking at somewhere around 15 trains per day coming into Washington state,” Byers said.

The company that owns the tracks has resources available along its rail lines, said Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad spokesman Gus Melonas. 

“BNSF has hazmat teams in place across our system, an aggressive team in Washington state,” Melonas said.

Byers countered saying those resources don’t come close to what is needed in the event of a spill.

“Their response system is excellent at rebuilding their infrastructure and getting their rail lines open again”, said Byers. “It’s not quite as good as we’d like it to be for addressing the environmental impacts of a spill.”