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Big Crowds Commenting On Wash. State Marine And Rail Oil Transportation Study

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The boom in domestic oil production through fracking is posing new risks to Washington’s rails and waterways. The state is taking comments on the initial findings of a marine and rail oil transportation study. Public meetings on the study are attracting busloads of people who want to voice their concerns. 

The state Department of Ecology released its draft findings on new risks from oil transportation earlier this month.

Crude by rail transportation has increased dramatically in the last three years, and the trend is expected to continue. The study says 19 loaded trains per week now travel through the state. Three of the five refineries in Puget Sound currently receive oil cars and the other two are expected to do so in the future.

“We didn’t even have any oil trains in Washington state until 2012. So this is a super new dynamic for us,” said Lisa Copeland, communication manager for spills at the state Department of Ecology. “Our state has an excellent prevention, preparedness and response system for dealing with oil tankers, because that’s how we traditionally received our oil."

Copeland says the state needs to update its preparedness plans to respond — not just to new transportation methods on rail cars and barges, but also to new types of crude oil they’re carrying. Bakken crude from North Dakota is more volatile.

Environmental groups say they’re expecting hundreds of people to give comments at the meetings in Spokane and Olympia.

Rebecca Ponzio is a policy specialist with Washington Environmental Council, which has been holding conference calls to prepare for the meetings and is offering carpools and free bus transportation from eight locations statewide.

"People are really concerned about all of the derailments that have been happening across North America — Canada and the U.S.," Ponzio said. "The awareness level is getting higher and higher about the risks associated with how oil is being transported, so these public meetings are a great opportunity to share concerns."

Ponzio says they plan to highlight the need for better safety measures now, such as extra tugs to accompany barges or more public disclosure of what kind of oil is moving when, so that communities can more effectively prepare for possible accidents. And they want to stop proposals to expand oil exports moving through the state and instead steer Washington toward a clean energy economy.  

The comments collected online and at the public meetings will be added to the final report, which is due in March and intended to guide new policies. The final version will be 600 to 700 pages long. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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