Legislature considers bill regulating oil transport


Bills proposed in the Legislature could impose stricter regulations on crude oil shipping on Grays Harbor, the Columbia River, Willapa Bay and Puget Sound, with state officials expecting a large increase in the amount of oil being shipped out of local ports.

The measures would also add to reporting requirements for companies transporting the substance by rail, and call for a study of the state’s capacity to respond to oil train accidents.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, introduced House Bill 2347, which received a public hearing in the House Environment Committee on Jan. 22. Bainbridge Island Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes introduced the companion bill, Senate Bill 6262.

Hoquiam Sen. Jim Hargrove, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said the legislation is designed to give Department of Ecology officials the same authority to regulate oil shipping on Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay and the Columbia River that they already have in the Puget Sound.

Grays Harbor and the Columbia River could soon be home to oil shipping facilities, while ports in the Puget Sound have been shipping the commodity for decades.

“The system is working very well in Puget Sound,” Hargrove said. “It will make sure that the Columbia River and the Harbor are awarded the same opportunities to prevent oil spills.”

If passed, the legislation would require that all oil-laden tankers larger than 5,000 gross tons be escorted by at lease one tug when traveling in the Puget Sound, within two miles of Grays Harbor or Willapa Bay, within three miles of the mouth of the Columbia River or on any inland portion of the Columbia River.

Oil tankers larger than 125,000 deadweight tons would be prohibited from entering the Puget Sound. Laden, single-hulled oil tankers 5,000 gross tons or larger would need two tug escorts when entering Puget Sound.

The volume of enclosed spaces on a ship is measured in gross tons, with one gross ton equaling 100 cubic feet. Deadweight tonnage is the measurement of the total mass of cargo and fuel that will bring a ship down to its loadline marks.

The state Department of Ecology would be given the authority to adopt supplemental escort tug rules, as they see fit.

House bill co-sponsor Rep. Steve Tharinger, a Sequim Democrat and member of the Environment Committee, said he’s glad the bill calls for additional tug support on Grays Harbor, but he’s concerned about the additional boats creating congestion on the water.

He said he’d also like to see a provision requiring an additional person in the oil tankers’ wheelhouses, helping to navigate the ships through the Harbor.

“You can always use one more set of eyes,” Tharinger said.

David Byers, Ecology’s spill response supervisor, testified at the House Environment Committee hearing, and explained that the legislation isn’t intended to fix oil spills. Rather, it would pre-empt oil traffic through Washington, the effect of drilling in North Dakota and the new Kinder Morgan oil pipeline through Canada.

“That means this risk picture is changing dramatically,” Byers said.

The state’s current oil spill prevention program works well, Byers said, so it should be expanded to cover other areas.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a big spill in Washington state,” Byers said. “You really have to go back to the ’80s or ’90s to find a time we’ve had a 90,000 or 100,000 gallon spill.”

The measure would also increase fees for oil spilled by barges towed by tugs. If barge owners or operators are found to be reckless or negligent, they would be required to pay triple the assessed damage to natural resources if oil is spilled in Puget Sound, Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, the Columbia River or near the mouth of the Columbia River.

“It doesn’t matter your political views or background, I think we can all agree that an oil spill would be devastating for Grays Harbor. Hopefully we’ll never have a spill, but if we do, we should have the resources to clean it up.” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.

“We’ve got a really beautiful coastline in my district and we should do what we can to protect it,” he added.

However, the state doesn’t have the same regulatory control for oil transported by rail. Much of the responsibility instead falls to the federal government. But lawmakers are hoping to learn more about oil transportation — both on land and on water — through a quarterly reporting system.

The Department of Ecology would be required to publish a quarterly oil transportation report based on information collected through existing state and federal programs. Oil refineries, as well as oil storage and handling facilities, would also be required to submit information: the number of tank vessels and rail cars that delivered or transferred oil each week, the volume and type of oil delivered to the facility, the mode of transportation and the route taken.

Both Frank Holmes, of the Western States Petroleum Association, and Johan Hellman, of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, testified at the Jan. 22 hearing, expressing concerns with the bill’s reporting requirements. Hellman said the reports could cause public safety and homeland security threats if members of the public are given access to the information. Both men asked that the committee add privacy provisions to the measure.

Tharinger said the rail provisions are a good start, but he would eventually like to see more, given recent oil train derailments and explosions.

“This Bakken oil is really flammable, and the rails run right through Aberdeen and Hoquiam,” Tharinger said.

The bill also calls for an emergency preparedness study from the state Office of Financial Management to determine whether the state has the resources to respond to an accident involving rail cars transporting oil.

Even though the Senate bill hasn’t yet received a hearing, Hargrove said it has a decent chance of passage. If the House bill passes a floor vote, it would be sent to the Senate — and Hargrove said senators have shown a decent amount of interest in the measure.

He said the measure won’t hinder state commerce, so it should gain support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

“This is a big mouthful to bite off in a short session, so I can’t promise it’s going to go through,” Hargrove said. “But I do think that it’s something that’s noncontroversial and supported on both sides.”

 

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