Fellow U.S. senators are calling on Washington’s Patty Murray to support major investments in oil train safety, but first she wants some answers.
Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, plans to question federal and local officials during a hearing Wednesday about safety issues involved in transporting crude by rail. Among those she’ll question:
- Barb Graff, Director, City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management
- Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation
- Deborah Hersman, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
- Tim Pellerin, Fire Chief, Rangeley, Maine, Fire Department
Murray’s announcement comes as three other Northwest senators — Washington’s Maria Cantwell and Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley — join 13 others in a letter urging her to support a new federal fund for oil train safety.
The Safe Transportation of Energy Products Fund, proposed in President Obama’s 2015 budget, aims to provide resources for strengthening tank car standards, training emergency responders, increasing railroad inspections and studying the characteristics of the oil.
“In light of several tragic accidents involving crude-by-rail trains — including the most recent derailment and explosion of tanker cars carrying crude oil near Casselton, North Dakota — communities stretching across our country from the Midwest to coastal ports and refineries are rightly concerned about the safe movement of these combustible products” the senators wrote in a public statement.
Their letter states that the U.S. rail system has seen a 6,000 percent increase in crude by rail since 2007 after a boom in production out of North Dakota exceeded the region’s pipeline capacity. In Washington state, crude by rail has gone from near zero to an estimated 55 million barrels in 2014. That could rise to 200 million barrels if several proposed crude by rail projects become reality.
The rapid increase caught many regulators and emergency responders unprepared, and the fund is intended to help close the many safety gaps identified after a string of high-profile accidents, including a deadly explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, last year. These include:
- The major of tank cars used to carry crude oil have a major safety flaw that’s been known for decades.
- Emergency responders do not have the equipment or information they need.
- Tank cars and tracks are rarely inspected, and states lack authority to regulate railroads.
Tom Towslee, spokesman for Wyden, said local responders have been candid about their concerns with the senator, who isn’t finished with this topic.
“As long as they’re concerned, we’re concerned,” Towslee said. “We’re going to stay on top of this as much as we can until we get some sort of answer how they’re going to address these safety issues.”
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