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Groups Say Oil-by-Rail Safety Rules Not Safe Enough

PHOTO: Groups from the Northwest are among a dozen nationwide asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to keep stronger notification requirements in place for informing emergency responders when hazardous liquids are being shipped by rail in their area. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation.
PHOTO: Groups from the Northwest are among a dozen nationwide asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to keep stronger notification requirements in place for informing emergency responders when hazardous liquids are being shipped by rail in their area. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Transportation.
June 9, 2015

SEATTLE – About a dozen cities, water quality groups and conservation organizations have joined forces to challenge part of the new U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) safety rules for oil shipments by rail.

At issue is how much, and when to tell cities and municipalities – and their respective emergency responders – if crude oil or other flammable liquids are coming through their area.

The coalition filed an administrative appeal asking the DOT to keep previous notifications in place, which they say were weakened in the final rules.

Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White says emergency crews in his area already have a difficult time dealing with the jump in Bakken crude shipments to refineries on the coast.

"This particular secrecy, there's sort of a terrorism clause, apparently, that's being used to keep the type of materials being hauled secret," he says. "It's a real problem for first responders."

The DOT says its new rules include notification of local government agencies for what it terms "large volumes of flammable liquids." Rail companies have said releasing additional route and cargo details could compromise national security, and let competitors know too much about their business.

The Columbia Gorge is another hotspot for rail transportation. Michael Lang, conservation director with Friends of the Columbia Gorge, says if the Tesoro Savage terminal in Vancouver is approved, it would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the United States. He says communities along the routes need to plan ahead.

"All of the oil that would go to that terminal, and all the other refineries and terminals in the Northwest, goes right through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area," says Lang. "We don't think that's right. We don't think these communities should be placed at risk."

The lawfirm Earthjustice is representing the dozen organizations in the latest in a long line of challenges to new oil tank-car safety rules announced in May.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA