Increased oil production in the United States in recent years has resulted in a concomitant climb in the number of trains carrying crude across the country. Eight years ago, railroads freighted fewer than 10,000 cars worth of oil, but by 2014 that volume of crude transported by rail approached half a million carloads, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Increased traffic has led to some high-profile accidents. For example, in 2013 a train carrying crude from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota derailed in Quebec, Canada. The crash leaked over one million of barrels of oil and sparked a fire that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Mégantic.
The Pacific Northwest is one U.S. region experiencing an uptick in crude-by-rail shipments to its many refineries along the West Coast. Although nothing close to the tragic crash Quebec has occurred in the Pacific Northwest, Washington State did experience a scare of its own when another train hauling Bakken crude derailed in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood during the summer of 2014. Nobody was hurt and no oil leaked, but the event heightened concern among the state’s citizens and elected officials.
After the Seattle derailment, Washington State’s legislature acted to strengthen protective measures within its purview by passing the Oil Safety Transportation Act. Although federal authorities principally oversee railway regulation in the United States, each state retains control over emergency response protocols, permitting programs, and a number of other railroad regulatory issues. States also shoulder responsibility for enforcing federal rail safety rules.
One part of Washington State’s legislation called on the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to develop regulations covering financial accountability for derailments, train inspection permissions, and safety sign rules at private crossings. New state rules on these three topics entered into force this spring.
Although rail companies operating in Washington State must already make annual financial disclosures to the UTC, the new rules require that each company shipping oil by rail demonstrate an ability to cover the costs of a “reasonable worst case spill.” The UTC attempted to craft a clear rule despite the state legislature’s “ambiguous” phrasing, according to Jason Lewis, a policy advisor who worked on the regulations.
The rule calculates a reasonable worst case scenario would cost $400 per gallon to clean up and mandates railways share data on their average and maximum oil carrying capacity. The UTC then inserts these numbers into a formula to determine the price tag of a hypothetical reasonable worst case spill. Cross-checking the resulting figure against a given railroad’s insurance coverage level and financial backing allows the UTC to ensure the company could cover cleanup costs.
In addition to financial disclosure changes, the new regulations boost state-level support for train safety inspectors in some of Washington’s larger cities. The UTC’s rail crossing inspection program previously excluded cities of 10,000 or more; under the new regulations, these cities could elect to participate and make use of UTC’s employees and expertise rather than funding local rail crossing inspections from community coffers.
A final gap filled by the UTC regulations concerns posting signs at rail crossings on private roads along routes taken by trains transporting crude. Federal and state laws already mandate alerts of upcoming rail crossings to drivers on public roads – either the familiar flashing lights or the simple cross-hatch signs depending upon level of vehicle traffic at the crossing. Until the new UTC rules took effect, Washington’s 350 private crossings on common oil train routes were not required to post signs. Now, railroads must post crossing signs for vehicle drivers at each private crossing by July of this year.
Federal officials also have taken steps to increase rail safety in recent years, from mandating new specifications for train cars that carry oil to requiring railroads to install positive train control technology. But recent agreements to extend compliance deadlines for several measures – by three years in the case of positive train control – helped prompt Washington State lawmakers to act in the meantime.
Washington’s Governor, Jay Inslee, welcomed the UTC’s rules as a step in the right direction, but noted “there is still work to do to safeguard the people and environment” from risks associated with oil trains.