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Sen. Murray Calls Federal Hearing On Risks, Procedures For Rail Shipment Of Crude Oil

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Less than four years ago, there were virtually no shipments of crude oil by rail car through Washington state. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see the dark-gray tanks at crossings all over the state.  

U.S.  Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., held a hearing with top transportation and safety officials to discuss potential safety measures to protect communities in the face of more growth.  

As domestic production increases with crude oil coming from the Bakken shale in North Dakota and Canada, oil car rail shipments are expected to more than triple to 55 million barrels this year. Seventeen million barrels rumbled across Washington state last year alone. 

And there’s concern that this oil is more explosive than traditional crude.

Murray, who called Wednesday's hearing, said railroads are effectively exempt from regulations that restrict other transportation modes, such as roads and pipelines. The lack of regulation has made recent accidents even more tragic, according to testimony from fire chief Tim Pellerin, who was called in from his home in Maine to assist in Quebec after an oil train exploded there last July.

‘That particular day, speaking to some of the firefighters in Lac-Megantic, they told us the stories of how the oil ran down the street like hot lava. And they actually saw people step out of their homes and be vaporized in the oil,” Pellerin said.

Seattle’s emergency management director Barb Graff also testified, saying the city is ready to welcome rail and oil companies to the table and get better response plans in place.

Measures under discussion include more federal funds for training on how to handle oil fires, different foams and chemicals needed for effective response and new regulations that would require upgrades to rail cars to make them and their explosive cargo more spillproof.

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