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Crude Oil Train Oversight Divides Lawmakers

State lawmakers in Olympia are going down divergent tracks in how to respond to the rapid increase of crude oil trains crossing the region. Timely public disclosure of train cargoes and safety risks is one point of contention.

Four recent derailments and explosions of crude oil trains in other parts of North America have raised alarm in city halls and state capitols in the Northwest. But state and local officials soon discovered their hands are largely tied because the feds have sole jurisdiction in this arena.

One idea supported by Democrats in the Washington Legislature is to require oil and rail companies to at least to reveal more about the volume, source and local routing of oil trains. BNSF Railway lobbyist Bill Stauffacher sounded cool to the idea during testimony Tuesday.

"We'll do our best to work with you. [We are] happy to answer any questions that you may have. But just know that we're trying to balance a lot of federal and state interests as well as the customer proprietary [information] and particularly the homeland security issues,” Stauffacher said.

Republicans who control the relevant levers of power in the Washington Senate want more study before taking any new regulatory actions. They also propose a grant program to help communities on rail lines improve their oil spill response plans. 

Separately, the Washington and Oregon Legislatures are moving forward with resolutions to urge the president and Congress to toughen safety standards for rail tank cars. In contrast to the "transparency" proposals, this tack is drawing little to no controversy. Oregon's version is set for a hearing on Thursday.

Some city and county councils around the Northwest have already approved similar non-binding resolutions, including most recently the Spokane City Council on Monday night.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.