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Activist Groups Seek Tighter State Scrutiny Of Oil Trains, Export Terminal Permits

Faced with increasingly volatile sources of crude from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week issued an executive order directing his state agencies to review safety regulations and response plans.

Now community activists in Washington are asking Gov. Jay Inslee to do the same for the state’s coast.

Coal Trains Helping Public Connect The Dots

Fred Felleman is a longtime maritime activist and whale biologist who moved to the region decades ago to study orcas.

He has a cabin that overlooks Haro Straight in north Puget Sound where tanker traffic is expected to more than quadruple as a result of three major projects by energy companies near Bellingham: a pipeline expansion and two export terminals.

Felleman says the controversial coal trains are helping the public connect the dots and see the risks associated with all fossil fuel exports that travel through the Northwest.

“And really the trains have been a great vehicle by which the public can see the connections between, whether it be the Montana mines or the North Dakota oil fields, or the tar sands to the port and everything in between,” he said.

'Unlike Coal, The Oil Trains Are Life-Threatening'

Felleman is now working with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, trying to stop the expansion of energy exports from the Northwest. Last week, the group asked Whatcom County to rescind permits for infrastructure handling fracked crude from North Dakota. When the initial environmental studies were conducted, the group argues, the public didn’t have all the information about how explosive it could be. 

Since then, it’s become clear that this kind of oil brings with it more than just the risk of a spill; Felleman says in the past six months, there have been four major derailments, increasing the risk of fatal explosions and toxic fires.

“Unlike coal, the oil trains are life-threatening,” he said.

Whatcom County rejected that argument, but its council members and the city of Bellingham both passed unanimous resolutions last week, calling on the industry to upgrade or retrofit its rail cars for more safety. That’s after two of the companies, Phillips 66 and BP, both reportedly committed to acquiring rail cars with double walls and shielded valves.

“And that is certainly something we really appreciate, and they have always been very good neighbors here in Whatcom County,” said Whatcom County Council member Ken Mann. “I’m very grateful that they are taking those steps proactively without even, you know, we didn’t ask them to do that. They’ve just been going about and committing to getting these safer cars in service.”

No Ecology Oversight For Oil Trains

Meantime, the state Department of Ecology is adjusting its oil spill prevention and response plan. Program manager David Beyer says the department is dealing with new risks of inland accidents, especially from the more explosive Bakken crude. But he says the department doesn’t have a lot of say over oil that’s moved by rail.

“States are preempted from regulating in this area by the federal government. With that said, we see a big difference in spill preparedness between rail and the other modes of transportation such as pipelines and tank vessels,” said Beyer, adding pipelines and tank vessels are both “areas where the state has direct regulatory authority for prevention and preparedness.”

Beyer says Inslee’s budget, which should be approved by the end of next month, includes more than $650,000 to improve preparedness along rail corridors.

Additional mitigation ideas include increased use of pipelines with which the state can have a greater regulatory role.

On Tuesday, the state House plans to move out of its environment committee a bill that would require more transparency around the movement of oil through the state. The Senate is scheduled to take up the topic as well.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to