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One 100-car train of oil rolls on Washington's rails each day

Searchers dig through the rubble for victims of the inferno in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Monday, July 8, 2013. A runaway train derailed early Saturday igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil. (AP Photo/THE CANADIAN PRESS,Ryan Remiorz)

Trains full of crude oil, like the one that exploded outside Quebec, started rolling through Washington last fall. There's one 100-car train each day, and that rate is going to increase as the state's refineries take more and more oil from the Midwest.

Washington never had to use rail to get its oil because most of our state's crude came from tankers and pipelines, but with the state only getting a quarter of the crude oil from Alaska that it used to get, it had to look for other sources. The biggest new source is the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.

Frank Holmes, who represents the Western States Petroleum Association, said there's only one way to get it here.

"There is a lot of oil being produced in North Dakota, and there are no real pipelines the exist that would be able to move that crude oil west into Washington state, so rail is picking up," he said.

Tesoro's Anacortes refinery is taking one 100-tanker car train every day now. Two other Northern Washington refineries are building huge rail spurs to handle these trains, and several other oil rail terminals are being planned around the state.

"If all this stuff got built to full capacity and operated at full capacity, we'd be looking at about 20 trains a day," said Eric de Place of Seattle's Sightline Institute.

The oil trains run on the BNSF lines through the state, and de Place worries about spills and derailments in Seattle, across Puget Sound and along the Columbia River.

"That gets to be a big enough figure that we should have a pretty serious conversation about safety measures, about congestion measures, kind of all the stuff that we would need to have in place to make sure that when we're moving that oil through cities and towns along the Northwest that we're not going to have something as awful as that experience in Quebec," he said.

The Washington State Department of Ecology just held its first training exercise in May to deal with a potential oil spill from one of these trains, but de Place worries about how other responders along the rail lines would handle a derailment.

"If there were just a leak or a spill or a small explosion or stalled train, we want to have contingency plans in place pretty carefully thought out in advance," he said.

Holmes said transporting oil, no matter how, carries risks, and he's not sure how many of these long trains will eventually be rolling through Washington. "Depending on what the market looks like in the future, the number of trains will really be driven by that," he said.

The second new Washington refinery rail terminal should be up and running by the end of 2013 or early 2014.

None of the crude trains that have been traveling through Washington since September have had any issues with leaks or derailments.

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About the Author


Chris Sullivan is a traffic reporter for KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. He cares deeply about the amount of time you spend sitting in Seattle traffic.

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