First-ever railroad oil spill response plan approved in Washington

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    A train carrying oil along the Edmonds waterfront. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

    Emergency response preparations for a major oil train spill took a big step forward March 1. The Washington Department of Ecology approved the state’s first oil spill response plan for the largest freight railroad company in the state — BNSF Railway Company.

    BNSF owns 1,332 miles of track in the state and delivers oil to refineries at Cherry Point and Ferndale, truck racks in Seattle and Spokane, and terminals in Anacortes and Pasco. With the approved plan, BNSF meets Ecology’s more protective requirements.

    “This plan is a significant step forward for the protection of Washington’s communities and environment,” said Dale Jensen, Ecology spills prevention program manager. “Oil by rail has expanded significantly in recent years, and it’s imperative railroad companies are prepared to work with the state to respond to a spill in a rapid, aggressive, and well-coordinated manner.”

    In 2017, railroad companies moved approximately 2 billion gallons of crude oil through Washington travelling through local communities, along major highways, the Columbia River, and Puget Sound. Railroads accounted for approximately 25 percent of all crude oil moving through the state.

    Under the 2015 Oil Transportation Safety Act, Ecology now requires rail lines to have contingency plans that guarantee they can respond to a spill quickly and effectively. This is the same requirement the state has for vessels, pipelines, and oil facilities.

    Washington joins California as the only two West Coast states to require oil spill contingency plans for railroad operators. Railroads in most states follow federal regulations that emphasize safety, but do not include requirements for oil spill response readiness.

    Highlights of the plan

    • Clarifies how notifications are made to ensure a joint response to a spill.
    • Requires spill response equipment, a team, and resources be pre-positioned statewide.
    • Requires readiness to respond to oiled wildlife and community air monitoring.
    • Requires ongoing annual training for local and tribal first responders and response contractors on fast-water response techniques.
    • Requires the development and practice of oil spill drills.

    Crude oil trains in Washington increased significantly in 2012. Prior to that most crude moved by vessel and pipeline. The Oil Transportation Safety Act recognized new risks in Washington from the increasing amount of oil by rail.

    Ecology is currently working on oil spill contingency plans with eight railroad companies that transport oil in Washington. Three of them, including BNSF, transport unrefined crude oil.

    To learn more about how oil is moving through Washington and what Ecology is doing to help protect communities and the environment, visit Ecology’s website on oil movement.

     

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