By Jerry Cornfield, Herald writer
OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are trying to reach agreement on tougher rules for the transportation of oil in Washington, including a requirement that rail carriers give local firefighters advance notice of when oil trains are coming.
Competing bills in the House and Senate could bring higher taxes for refiners, larger crew sizes on trains for railroads and more inspections of tracks and railroad crossings.
Sponsors of the bills are trying to reconcile differences and avoid legislative derailment, but the chasm might be too great in the typically contentious final weeks of the legislative session.
“The public wants us to act,” said Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, prime sponsor of the House bill. “Our local officials want us to act. We’ve made some progress. I think both the Senate and the House want to get a bill passed.”
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, author of the Senate bill, expressed the same degree of optimism.
“We’ve been listening and working with them,” he said. “We’ll get a bill passed.”
A spate of oil train accidents the past two years has fueled state and federal lawmakers’ concerns about the ability of railroads to safely transport the material and the capability of communities to respond to an incident.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced a bill March 25 to immediately ban the use of older-model tank cars, known as DOT 111, that have been shown to be at high risk for puncturing and catching fire in derailments.
Her bill also increases fines for railroads that violate hazardous-material laws and authorizes money for first-responder training, equipment and emergency preparedness, as well as increased rail inspections.
In Olympia, an attempt to pass new rules in the 2014 session got mired in partisanship.
Ericksen blamed the failure on election-year politics. He was seeking another term, and environmentalists tried and failed to unseat him. This year’s negotiations are occurring in a less volatile atmosphere because there is no election, he said.
“The emerging issue is crude by rail, and that’s the issue we need to address,” he said.
“I think last year a lot of people were more focused on having a campaign issue than having a public safety solution. Hopefully we can move on and get a bill passed.”
In the meantime, BNSF Railway, which hauls most of the oil in Washington, including through Snohomish County, is monitoring both bills and pointing out areas that could negatively affect its operations.
The two bills face key votes this week. On Monday, Ericksen’s Senate Bill 5057 is to be considered by the House Environment Committee, and on Tuesday, Farrell’s House Bill 1449 will be up for action before the Senate environment panel.
The House bill — which was originally requested by Gov. Jay Inslee — requires advance notice to the Department of Ecology of oil transfers by rail, including information about the volume, type and route. Such reports must be provided daily. Ericksen’s bill requires notice once a week.
Farrell’s legislation also requires railroads to show they can afford to pay for oil spill cleanup and allows for new rules requiring tug escorts of oil barges along the Columbia River and in Grays Harbor.
Farrell is proposing to double the oil barrel tax from 4 cents to 8 cents to cover the full cost of oil spill preparedness and response. Ericksen’s bill keeps the tax unchanged.
Both bills would begin to apply the barrel tax on oil delivered by trains. Today it is only levied on marine tanker shipments. Farrell also wants it applied to material moved by pipeline.
Both bills would add rail inspectors at the state Utilities and Transportation Commission through increases in an existing railroad regulatory fee.
The required number of crew members on trains transporting oil and other hazardous materials could be contentious.
Today oil trains travel with two crew members. Under the Senate bill, a third person would be required on trains of 50 or fewer cars transporting hazardous materials, and a fourth person would be required for those with 51 or more cars. That could affect roughly 12 trains per week that travel through Snohomish County.
Ericksen opposes the provision, which was added by Senate colleagues over his objection. He said he’ll try to get it removed. The House bill is silent on crew size, but Farrell said her colleagues support it.
“We hope our piece ends up in the final bill,” said Herb Krohn, legislative director for the United Transportation Union, whose members include conductors and engineers. “We think it is landmark and does something substantive for the safety of the railroads.”
Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, a member of the House Environment Committee, said advance-notice and crew-size requirements are about better protecting the public.
And increasing the barrel tax will “make sure that we are paying for what we need.”
“I can’t see how an extra four cents will have a huge impact on the viability of what they’re doing, but it will have a huge impact on what we’re doing in terms of public safety and environmental protection,” he said.
While no legislation was passed in 2014, a comprehensive study of the safety of oil transportation in the state did get funded.
The final report, issued this month, concluded that the state isn’t prepared for a major incident and offered 43 ways to address weaknesses in the transport of oil by marine tankers, trains and pipelines.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who secured money in the budget for that study, said many of the suggestions are in the House bill, while most are not in the version passed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
“If we’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars, we should damn well listen to the recommendations in that study and not just ask the oil industry which ones they like,” he said.