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King County To Lead Rehearsal Of Oil Train Disaster Response

Paul Chiasson
AP Photo/The Canadian Press
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013.

Local and federal responders plan to rehearse how they’d handle the fiery crash of an oil train in Seattle – a hypothetical disaster that will play out around a table in King County.  

King County’s Emergency Management Department is coordinating with about a dozen different agencies in what they call a “tabletop exercise.” Staff will present the scenario, and responders around the table or on the phone then go through the motions of what happens next.

“Let’s say [it's] just a day like today, a nice wonderful day in Seattle. Oil train derails, oil spills, ignites, there's a large fireball in the sky,” said department director Walt Hubbard. “Who would you coordinate with? How would you communicate?”

Officials say it’s the region’s first exercise like this to specifically target oil trains.

Hubbard says all the agencies have plans already, but playing them out helps them streamline their operations and see if there are gaps.

“We continue to be surprised at times that even though we believe that we have well-oiled plans, we always learn from this. I mean, I can rarely think of something that we walked out of and said, 'You know, we need to do nothing,”' he said.

Hubbard has invited representatives from FEMA, the EPA, the rail companies — all the players who’d have a hand in containing and cleaning up this kind of disaster.

In some cases, the tabletop drill leads to a full functional exercise, which puts actual people and equipment through their paces.

Hubbard says the recent derailment of several oil cars in Seattle drives home the urgency of this kind of dry run. The railway BNSF reports that between eight and 13 oil trains move through King County in a given week. That number could increase if Northwest refineries and port terminals grow as planned.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.