Washington’s small railroads seek relief from oil-spill rule

Don Jenkins/Capital Press Rail tankers sit idle on tracks in Washington state. Small railroads hope the Legislature will exempt carriers that transport only vegetable oils from planning requirements primarily aimed at responding to crude oil spills.

OLYMPIA — Three small Eastern Washington railroads that transport vegetable oils are again hoping to be excused from a state law that mandates carriers drill for worst-case spills, a rule motivated by an influx of tanker cars carrying crude oil.

The state Department of Ecology says spilled vegetable oil damages the environment and that practicing a rapid and aggressive response will save on clean-up bills.

Others, however, complain the agency overreached. “It’s a bureaucratic issue that requires commonsense. We need more commonsense,” said Patrick Boss, a lobbyist for short-line railroads.

Canola and crude got mixed together after legislators passed a multi-part bill in 2015 to further regulate trains, vessels and pipelines moving oil. The law was motivated by more shipments of crude oil from the Bakken fields to Washington refineries. Lawmakers said they feared fiery derailments.

BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Railroad and two smaller railroads that transport crude oil have submitted spill-response plans.

The Central Washington Railroad, Columbia Basin Railroad and Great Northwest Railroad have until March 30 to submit plans. None of them carry crude oil, but they do haul plant-based oils manufactured in Washington or used by food processors.

Plans requirements include twice-yearly deployment drills, plus additional tabletop drills. Railroads already are required to plan for spills under federal law.

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, and Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, have introduced bills that would exempt vegetable oils from the rule. Some Democratic have signed on as co-sponsors.

“There are no similarities between vegetable oils and Bakken crude,” Dye said. “To my mind, the risk on this product is extremely low and the cost (of the rule) is extremely high.”

Similar legislation last year failed, even though some lawmakers said they were surprised the oil-safety law they passed in 2015 applied to vegetable oils.

Ecology estimated the new rule would cost BNSF between $9 and $17 per employee. The smaller railroads, however, average 36 employees. The new rule would cost them $6,848 to $11,562 per employee, according to Ecology’s analysis.

Boss said the rule could cost more than a railroad makes hauling vegetable oils.

“This may inadvertently actually put freight on trucks and more trucks on the road,” he said.

Ecology’s spill preparedness manager, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, said the department has tried to make the rule easy to comply with and hopes that actual costs will be less than the agency projected.

To support its position that the rule should cover vegetable oil, Ecology last year cited a 2015 warehouse fire in Winlock that released cooking oil into a creek and killed thousands of fish.

This year, Ecology is highlighting damage caused by vegetable oil that spilled at a Seattle-area tortilla factory. A container tipped over and the oil flowed through a drain into a nearby stormwater pond. Oil soaked geese and ducks.

“Although less toxic and flammable than petroleum oils such as Bakken, these oils contain components that can cause devastating effects to fish, wildlife and plant species,” according to an Ecology flier.

The flier includes a photo of workers mopping up oil spilled from the tortilla factory under the heading, “Biological Oils Transported by Rail.”

Boss called the flyer “propaganda.”

Pilkey-Jarvis acknowledged that Ecology can’t cite an example of vegetable oil spilling in a train accident, but she defended the flyer’s main point.

“We’re trying to show that spilled oil is not innocuous. It does have an impact,” she said. “Because it’s never happened, you can’t say it won’t happen. That logic doesn’t hold.”

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