Oil train traffic concerns Spokane firefighters; next state hearing Thursday night in Olympia

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SPOKANE, Washington — Although Burlington Northern Santa Fe has improved the safety of oil trains, a Spokane Valley fire official said firefighters would be "extremely challenged" to respond to a significant event.

At a state hearing Tuesday night in Spokane, Deputy Chief Andy Hail said firefighters need more training and equipment to prepare, the Spokesman-Review reported (http://bit.ly/1zISPAx).

"I'm not going to pretend to anyone. We are going to be extremely challenged to respond to a significant event," Hail, deputy chief for the Spokane Valley Fire Department, told about 200 people attending the hearing, the first of two planned to discuss the growth of oil shipments through the state.

The state Ecology Department plans another hearing on an oil train study Thursday in Olympia. The study looked at the impacts of shipping more oil from North Dakota to refineries and ports in Washington.

Spokane City Council member Mike Fagan urged state officials to strike a balance between safety and prosperity.

But other speakers focused on how they would respond to an accident.

Nearly 3 billion gallons of crude oil will move through the state on trains this year. That volume could triple within five years, as highly flammable crude from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields is shipped to refineries and ports in Western Washington, Oregon and California.

The risk of a fiery wreck, such the one that killed 47 people in Quebec last year, or evacuated the town of Casselton, North Dakota, figured prominently in the speakers' remarks.

"We've all seen the pictures," said state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. "An oil train explosion here would be catastrophic."

Hail said firefighters need more training and equipment, and exercises to help local emergency officials prepare a coordinated response.

"We would also like to ask why the railroad can't provide technical resources in a major metro area such as Spokane," Hail said.

BNSF Railway has trailers with foam suppressant stationed in Pasco and in Whitefish, Montana, which would have to be trucked to Spokane in the event of an emergency. The railroad should also station technical spill experts and air-quality monitoring equipment in the Spokane area, Hail said.

That's a goal of the state as well, said Dale Jensen, a manager for the state Department of Ecology's spill program. Federal regulations require railroads to alert states when trains contain a million gallons of Bakken crude.

"But that's a high number," he said.

Oil tankers entering Washington ports must report the volume of oil, type of oil product and its characteristics. "We want the same thing from the railroad," Jensen said.

The 110-page report on the state study includes other proposals, including requiring railroads to develop oil spill response plans and put up financial guarantees for cleanup costs and damages in the event of a spill or derailment. Gov. Jay Inslee will use the report to develop recommendations to the 2015 Legislature.


Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com

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