Senate panel approves spending bill with funds to improve oil train safety


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved on Thursday a transportation spending bill that includes funding to address gaps in safety and training revealed by recent derailments of trains carrying crude oil.

The bill, which now goes to the full Senate, includes funding for new rail and hazardous materials safety inspectors, automated track inspections and web-based training for first responders. It supports increased safety training for smaller railroads hauling crude oil.

It also requires the Department of Transportation to finish tougher design standards for tank cars transporting crude oil by Oct. 1.

“We all need to recognize that these trains are already moving in states across the country, including Washington,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, “and that there are steps we can take now to make our communities safer.”

Several derailments involving crude oil in the past year have revealed numerous safety vulnerabilities relating to track, rail operations and rail cars. They’ve also shown a gap in the response capabilities of state and local agencies, which in most cases were not made aware of the shipments and couldn’t prepare for the risks.

Gordon Delcambre, a spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said he couldn’t comment on the October deadline imposed by the Senate bill. But he said that his agency and the Federal Railroad Administration are “putting every option on the table when it comes to improving the safe transport of crude oil by rail.”

The Washington Department of Ecology estimates that 29 million barrels of oil were imported to the state last year, up from nothing in 2011. The oil, from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region, is displacing crude from Alaska and foreign countries at the state’s refineries.

Washington has a robust system in place to respond to spills from marine vessels, but those capabilities aren’t easily adaptable to rail incidents.

The state legislature earlier this year appropriated $300,000 to study the health, safety and environmental risks of crude oil transportation by rail, and $652,000 to develop response plans and hire experts for inland spills.

Other states are making similar moves. In January, California shifted resources from its traditional marine spill response program to account for the threat of inland spills. State officials anticipate that a quarter of California’s petroleum supply could be delivered by rail in the next few years.

State agencies in New York, which has no refineries but has become a hub for crude oil shipments bound for other East Coast destinations, are conducting a wide-ranging review of their response capabilities.

In Virginia, the site of a recent crude oil train derailment, a new rail safety task force held its first meeting this week.

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