In the past, city and state leaders have had a tough time enacting stronger regulations on the transportation of hazardous materials on railroads, which are federally regulated.
Nearly seven years ago, the fiery derailment of a Union Pacific oil train fueled a debate in Spokane about local regulation of oil shipments passing through the city.
In June 2016, a train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, known to be particularly volatile, derailed near the town of Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland. The same train had passed through Spokane just hours earlier.
Sixteen tank cars derailed, four caught fire, and tens of thousands of gallons of oil leaked. Residents were forced to evacuate, and water and sewage systems were shut down. By December, cleanup costs had reached at least $9 million, but were likely far higher.
A week later, railroad officials blamed the derailment on at least one broken bolt that had been holding the rail in place.
The Spokane City Council moved quickly, calling on Union Pacific to halt train shipments of oil through Mosier until it finished cleaning up. Shipments resumed through the area just three days after the crash.
By July, the Council was mulling whether to ask voters to approve fines on companies shipping crude oil and coal by rail through downtown Spokane.
An oil train derailment in downtown Spokane would pose “extreme challenges,” a Spokane city consultant reported in 2016. Elevated tracks through downtown pass by, and sometimes above, restaurants, hotels, banks, retailers and other businesses. The city’s water supply is also sourced from a single aquifer, making Spokane particularly vulnerable to a contaminated water supply.
The 2016 measure, pitched by then-Council President Ben Stuckart and then-Councilman Breean Beggs, was approved by the Council for the November ballot, only to be withdrawn after Stuckart about-faced. “Really successful” meetings with railroad executives and review of legal analyses of the ballot measure led to the withdrawal request, Stuckart said at the time.
By 2017, activists had gathered enough signatures to put their own proposed regulations onto the ballot, this time focusing on the oil and coal companies themselves rather than the railroads. But the initiative failed after significant opposition from oil and coal companies, rail carriers and former Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, as well as numerous independent legal opinions that argued the measure would violate federal law.
Washington State leaders were the next to take a stab at the issue. In 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5579, a bill sponsored by state Senator Andy Billig, D-Spokane, that would have required oil being transported by rail meet a lower volatility standard by 2021.
The new Washington law faced immediate opposition from rail and oil industries, as well as the attorneys general for Montana and North Dakota, which send crude through Washington on its way to refineries. In 2020, the Trump administration blocked the law from taking effect, arguing it was preempted by federal law.
Recently, however, there has been momentum in the U.S. Congress to enact broader restrictions . After the Feb. 3 high-profile derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, Ohio senators introduced a bipartisan bill that would set new requirements on trains carrying hazardous materials.
The bipartisan Senate bill is cosponsored by Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both Pennsylvania Democrats, and Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Among numerous other provisions, it would require rail carriers like Norfolk Southern to notify state officials in advance when they are carrying hazardous materials, require two-person crews on all trains and require sensors at least every 10 miles that can detect overheating wheels.
Beggs, today Spokane Council President, hopes to seize the momentum to lobby for additional safety measures, particularly ones reducing the volatility of the Bakkan oil that commonly passes through the city.
“The Bakkan oil that comes through here is particularly volatile, and in the places where they’ve crashed and tanks ruptured, there have been tremendous fires,” Beggs said.
Read More: Spokane and Washington have a history of failed attempts to regulate oil trains