Train exec rails against Ecology oil spill rule

Small railroads in Washington state are lobbying the Legislature to revise a new Department of Ecology rule that threatens to make transporting vegetable oils unprofitable.

OLYMPIA — A small railroad that makes about $4,000 a year hauling soybean oil and mineral oil will have to spend several times that amount to meet the Washington Department of Ecology’s rule on preparing for oil spills, a railroad executive told legislators this week.

The soybean oil goes to feed cattle and the mineral oil goes to orchards as a pesticide, Central Washington Railroad Chief Operating Officer Tim Kelly told the House Environment Committee on Feb. 6.

Ecology’s new rule treats those oils the same as crude oil transported across state lines by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad.

Ecology estimates that making plans, holding drills and keeping clean-up crews on standby will cost railroads between $12,000 and $39,000 a year.

Kelly, who’s also COO of the Columbia Basin Railroad, said the expense will fall most heavily on the small railroads, which don’t even haul explosive petroleum oils. Combined, the two railroads have 46 employees and annual revenues of under $10 million, he said.

“We consider ourselves small businesses, and we’re serving small business customers, principally supporting agriculture,” Kelly said.

“We are responsive to any accidents on our line anyway, but these are administrative costs above the actual costs of having to deal with anything,” he said.

For the second straight year, several small railroads are trying to persuade lawmakers that safety legislation passed in 2015 wasn’t intended to regulate vegetable oils.

Lawmakers declined to act last year. The deadline for railroads to submit spill-response plans is March 30, so there is more urgency this year.

The crude oil boom and fears of fiery derailments motivated the legislation. The derailment and explosion of a Union Pacific crude oil tanker last June in Mosier, Ore., reinforced those fears.

Ecology acknowledges Washington has not experienced disastrous vegetable oil spills from trains. The department cites recent vegetable oils released from a burning warehouse and a tortilla factory as proof that plant-based oils can menace waterfowl and fish.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, an environmental group, joined Ecology in defending the rule.

“In our experience, the contingency planning, the planning upfront, pays off in huge ways,” Ecology spill response manager Dale Jensen told the House committee. “We’ve worked really, really hard to have a smart rule, and I just ask you to give us a chance to implement it.”

Kelly said the Columbia Basin Railroad hauls 800 to 900 carloads of canola oil a year.

“It certainly doesn’t have any of the properties that the Union Pacific and the city of Mosier had to deal with. The concern would be dealing with waterways. I think that’s Ecology’s take,” he said. “On that line, we cross no waterways. We don’t go near any waterways. The Columbia Basin is primarily desert region.”

The Central Washington Railroad hauled 25 carloads of mineral oil and five carloads of soybean oil in 2016, Kelly said. As a common carrier, the railroad can’t discriminate against cargo, he said.

“If we had the freedom to act, we would choose not to haul these products at all because they’re uneconomical to haul under these conditions,” Kelly said.

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