Fertilizer gets pushed onto oil train bill

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

OLYMPIA — Anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen-based fertilizer, has been dragged into legislation to regulate railroad tankers carrying crude oil.

Train traffic between the Bakken oil fields and West Coast refineries is increasing rapidly. Lawmakers are working on a bill to help agencies respond to and prevent fiery derailments.

The Senate and House have passed separate measures that must be reconciled. Both bills focus on crude oil, but Senate Bill 5057 was amended late, on a 25-24 vote, to require oil trains to add crew members on the rear of the train to decouple cars in an accident.

The labor-supported amendment also extended the bill to cover anhydrous ammonia shipments, potentially increasing transportation costs.

The bill’s prime sponsor, Ferndale Republican Doug Ericksen, opposed broadening the legislation, but the amendment passed 25-24, with primarily Democrat support. Once amended, the bill passed 26-23, with Republican support. Democrats argued the bill didn’t go far enough, particularly in keeping the public informed on train schedules.

Washington Farm Bureau director of governmental relations Tom Davis said hauling fertilizer has not been an issue, but it’s now caught up into the debate over transporting hazardous substances.

“We’d rather not get sucked into the fight,” Davis said.

“For us, it’s a risk management issue,” he said. “Show us where it rises to this (oil trains) issue. We believe our safety record is pretty strong and doesn’t justify these greater restrictions.”

In the end, anhydrous ammonia may not be in the bill worked out between the Senate and House.

The House version, House 1449, is generally viewed as the more strict of the two bills, but does not apply to transporting fertilizer.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, who voted against adding anhydrous ammonia to the bill, said the chemical has been transported for more than 50 years without a problem.

“I think that’s a great tribute to how it’s handled,” he said. “Clearly, there was some collateral damage (by the amendment) that needs to be addressed.”

Schoesler said it would be impractical to stop trains at the Idaho border and add a caboose and one or two crew members, depending on the length of the train.

“We’ve got to get it fixed,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee supports legislation to regulate oil trains. Asked Tuesday whether he supports including other chemicals to the bill, he was non-committal.

“I know there are more substances than gasoline that can be very, very dangerous — chlorine, fertilizer can be explosive. I don’t have a firm position on that,” he said.

Adding two rear brakemen to a train traveling between Idaho and Canada via Pasco, Vancouver and Seattle would cost $3,326, according to Herb Krohn, legislative director for United Transportation Union, which represents railroad workers.

Krohn said the union supports excluding anhydrous ammonia from the new restrictions, except in the case of unusually long trains.

Railroad companies oppose the new staffing requirements, arguing they would interfere with federal rules and collective bargaining agreements.

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