Rail safety a public concern

Safety number one priority for City

July 14, 2014 - by Mayor Kelli Linville

Public safety is the number one priority for me and for our City government,
and in the past year, rail safety has come to the forefront as a major
concern in our community and cities on rail lines across the country.

Since 2008, we have more than 40 times the number of trains hauling crude
oil nationwide. Major accidents in the United States and Canada have raised
the alarm about the increased risks to communities along those rail lines.

Certainly this is a major concern to me and to the residents in our
community, and it's one I’ve been working with our state and federal elected
officials to find a long-term solution. In Bellingham, the railroad passes
near the homes of thousands of residents and near numerous businesses,
recreation sites, transportation centers and the City's wastewater treatment
plant. We have a clear and legitimate concern about how the increase in
crude oil cars could negatively affect our community on several levels.
According to the State, Bellingham has five to six crude oil trains
currently coming through town daily, and with an expected increase of as
many as two 100-car unit trains traveling to regional refineries daily, this
is a topic that needs to be addressed right now.

In the past month, we've had increased news and actions on the subject as
well. Last month's news from the National Transportation Safety Board was
cause for increased concern. In a letter to Oregon's Senators Ron Wyden and
Jeff Merkley, NTSB Acting Chairman Christopher A. Hart observed that
“accidents involving crude oil or flammable liquids of any kind, especially
when these liquids are transported in large volumes such as in unit trains
or in blocks of tank cars, can have disastrous consequences, including
devastating environmental contamination.”

Governor Jay Inslee outlined a plan in early June to deal with the growing
risks of the transportation of crude oil, both by rail and by water, that
create new safety and environmental risks for the entire state. Transport by
rail of crude oil from the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota has
increased, as has transportation of Canadian crude oil to British Columbia
ports, and much of this is transported through Washington State. The
governor’s plan, which I support, is to:

  • Assess the risk along the state's rail lines
  • Review state and federal laws and identify regulatory gaps
  • Assess the relative risk of Bakken crude with respect to other forms
    of crude oil
  • Identify information gaps that hinder improvements in public safety
    and spill prevention and response
  • Develop spill response plans for impacted counties
  • Identify potential actions that can be coordinated with neighboring
    states and British Columbia
  • Identify, prioritize and estimates costs for state actions that will
    improve public safety and spill prevention and response, including rail

I am also representing our community through my appointment to the
Association of Washington Cities Ad Hoc Freight Rail Committee. I am serving
with 26 mayors and city council members across the state to address a number
of city concerns relating to rail safety, mobility and service, and the
committee will coordinate with affected cities, Washington's congressional
delegation, state, federal and local agencies, and other stakeholders to
develop a recommendation.

Working with state and federal lawmakers

The City of Bellingham has also been taking action to urge state and federal
lawmakers to address this critical issue. Earlier this year, I worked with
the Bellingham City Council to pass a resolution supporting an increase in
safety standards for rail tank cars that transport oil, ethanol and other
flammable liquids through Bellingham. The resolution calls on the federal U.
S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to adopt in 2014
rules requiring safety retrofitting of existing rail cars.

The City has several high priority needs in regards to rail safety. We need
to prevent catastrophic rail accidents such as those that have happened in
the United States and Canada in the past year, including tanker car safety
and rail improvements. We need to make sure we have adequate emergency
response in place to react to rail accidents that happen in Bellingham. And
we need to make sure there's a plan in place to recover clean-up costs,
environmental remediation costs, medical expenses and any damages or claims
that are not covered by the responsible party. Public safety is a concern
for everyone working on this issue, and we all have a common goal to protect
the public. This will take an effort from all parties, including the
railroad industry, which has been also calling for stricter regulations. The
railroads have urged federal regulators to toughen existing standards for
new tank cars and require that existing tank cars are retrofitted with
advanced safety-enhancing technology or phased out entirely.

The City has recently invested in and plans to continue to invest
substantially in restoration of nearshore and shoreline habitats and
revitalize the old Georgia-Pacific site, and both would be adversely
affected by oil spills, train accidents and increased rail traffic.

I support the rapid implementation of increased safety standards for
rail-tank cars, and I encourage efforts of the oil industry to retrofit or
replace rail-tank cars as soon as possible. The City Council and I call upon
the federal department of transportation to adopt more stringent
requirements for rail cars and to support local governments in appropriating
enhanced emergency response planning.

I look forward to continuing to work with our state, federal and local
representatives to manage these emerging and heightened risks.

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