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Senator warns far more needs to be done to prevent massive oil spill in Washington state

With crude oil shipping and train derailments on the rise, the U.S. Department of Transportation says it’s an “imminent hazard,” and has issued an emergency order requiring railroads notify local emergency responders whenever oil shipments travel through their states. But a Washington state senator says it’s not nearly enough.

The emergency order issued Wednesday comes in the wake of a series of accidents, as the volume of crude oil shipped from the Bakken region of North Dakota across the United States continues to increase.

“It’s a good first step, but far more needs to be done quickly,” says Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.

O’Ban led a bi-partisan effort to pass legislation requiring oil terminals report shipments to the state Department of Ecology. The measure failed amidst ongoing disputes between environmentalists and the rail and oil industries.

O’Ban says he is worried just knowing when and where oil is being shipped isn’t enough, pointing to the increased number of accidents, including the May 1 derailment of an oil train Lynchburg, Va. It spilled 30,000 gallons into the James River which erupted into flames, forcing the evacuation of 350 people.

Last year, an oil train exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

“We really need the federal government to approach this with a greater degree of urgency and without violating any administrative procedures. We need to get them to create new rules as quickly as possible.”

O’Ban is calling on federal regulators to implement new safety standards that would require retrofitting of train cars to better protect against spills in the event of derailment. And he wants antiquated tank cars that can’t be retrofitted banned from service — as Canada did following the Quebec disaster.

The Transportation Department has also issued a separate safety advisory encouraging railroads to avoid using older tank cars “to the extent reasonably practicable,” and is working on updated standards expected to be released this summer. But O’Ban worries they aren’t moving fast enough to prevent a massive spill in Washington state.

“If we’re going to increase rail traffic two, three times what it’s been historically, you just know the accident rate is going to increase as well,” he says.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell agrees, telling Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx during a Senate hearing Wednesday that oil trains move through “every major city in the Northwest … hitting every urban center in our state.” She pressed Foxx to move even faster on tougher tank-car standards that would have the force of law.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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