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News

The Dirty Dozen

More oil trains move through region than first reported

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A dozen trains loaded with oil roll to refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties each week, according to data released reluctantly by railroad officials last week. While a substantial cargo in its own right, that number is still only a fraction of the oil moving through the Columbia Gorge, peeling off to cities and sites across Washington and Oregon.

The release includes an oil-traffic report from BNSF Railway that reveals nearly 20 unit trains of volatile Bakken crude oil are shipped through the state’s heartland each week, with roughly half threading their way through the populous Puget Sound corridor. A unit train has about 100 tanker cars each carrying about 680 barrels, which makes each train worth about 68,000 barrels of crude, according to the state Department of Ecology.

BNSF Railway and Portland and Western Railroad were among the carriers that submitted reports to emergency management response units throughout the state in response to a federal order. BNSF provided county-by-county train counts during a seven-day period, acknowledging “the important role community emergency planning and responding personnel play in protecting our communities.” The company is “committed to providing information to support these efforts within the limits defined by law,” BNSF said in a statement.

Railroads were ordered to file oil train data with states by the U.S. Department of Transportation last month as part of stepped-up safety protocols in response to a string of fiery train derailments. At the center of those concerns is Bakken crude oil extracted from a shale formation in North Dakota.

The transportation department issued the order, which took effect June 6, with the expectation that states would share the information, including routes, volumes and numbers of trains hauling 1 million or more gallons of Bakken crude, only with emergency response officials—not the public.

Aiming to make sure of that, BNSF and other railroads sent Washington and other states confidentiality agreements. Some states, including Washington, refused to sign them, saying they conflicted with their public disclosure laws. In Washington, officials proposed an alternative agreement under which the railroads would be allowed to seek a protective order in court to prevent the information from being released to the public. Opportunity was provided for the railroads to challenge the decision in court.

Railroads have not sought such an order. As the Bakken oil train reports come in, Washington and other states are releasing them in response to public-disclosure requests filed by media.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, the largest hauler of crude oil by rail in North America, said that the railroad received guidance from the U.S. Department of Transportation that the information wasn’t protected.

“Once it became clear from the federal government that crude oil was not considered sensitive, secure information, we continued on our path of simply complying” with the department’s emergency order, she said in an email.

“Although security regulations allow for limited disclosure of this information, we must all be cognizant that there is a real potential for the criminal misuse of this data in a way that could cause harm to your community or other communities along the rail route,” Patrick Brady, BNSF’s director of hazardous material operations, warned.

BNSF had previously said the company ran one to two Bakken oil trains daily in the Northwest, an estimate below what recently disclosed data suggests.

Worries about the safety of oil trains are particularly heightened in Whatcom and Skagit counties, where three refineries have increased capacity to process and ship Bakken crude. Tesoro’s Anacortes oil refinery was the first in the region to accept Bakken crude. The facility there can fill 50,000 barrels of the refinery’s 120,000 barrel-per-day capacity, said Dan Cameron, manager of the Tesoro refinery.

Several derailments of trains carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region in the past year have raised concerns in cities and states across the continent. The spilled oil ignited massive fires in Canada, Alabama, North Dakota, and Virginia, surprising local mayors, fire chiefs and police chiefs, who were never told about the shipments.

Federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) speculate that the oil’s explosive nature may be due to either particular properties of the oil, or added chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract it. PHMSA has yet to release specific details of its investigation with regard to the oil’s flammability.

The concern of volatility is compounded by other concerns voiced by emergency responders about the lack of safeguards of railroad tanker cars and the age of infrastructure required to carry volumes that have increased dramatically since 2010.

The oil-by-rail data had been the subject of hearings in the state Legislature this year, and a bill requiring such disclosure passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus, which sought a study instead of disclosure. BNSF officials claimed in testimony that too much detailed disclosure would put them at odds with the Homeland Security Department, based on terrorism concerns. The Western States Petroleum Association testified there were proprietary concerns related to oil volumes.

Compiled through reports by Associated Press

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