Washington Department of Ecology officials have already admitted that they wouldnt have enough resources to deal with a surprise tar sands crude-by-rail spill.
Washington Department of Ecology officials have already admitted that they wouldn't have enough resources to deal with a surprise tar sands crude-by-rail spill. Anan Kaewkhammul/Shutterstock

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On February 22, the Associated Press published a damning scoop on oil trains: A "previously unreported" study from the federal Department of Transportation predicts 15 oil train derailments in 2015 and an average of 10 annual derailments in this country over the next 20 years. The analysis also notes that a serious accident in a densely populated area could kill more than 200 people.

Preventing a spill in a densely populated area is exactly what protesters who showed up for last week's demonstration against oil trains in Seattle are worried about. But Washington State rules can't preempt federal ones, so on top of what's going on at the local level, it's up to the federal government to demand new safety standards for the industry. There's a lot of room for improvement, according to a Center for Biological Diversity report published last month. It looked at the consequences of oil train derailments across the country and criticized the feds for not moving fast enough.

Still, there's a lot individual states can do to put pressure on the feds to hurry up, the author of that report says. One of the best ways to do so is public disclosure requirements—rules that identify which oil trains will be passing through different parts of the state, and when.

"I think disclosure requirements need to be broad, because public pressure is really important," says Jared Margolis, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and author of last month's report. "People should know where these [trains] are so they can stand up and tell the government this is not what they want. If the pressure is there from the state, and the citizens, then we'll see some action."

State legislators in Olympia are currently considering two oil transportation safety bills, one sponsored by Senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale) and the other by Representative Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle). Ericksen's bill, which only covers oil-by-rail safety, doesn't include public disclosure rules. Farrell's bill, which covers a wide range of oil transportation safety issues, does.

All of this comes at a time when recent events have doubly underlined the need for transparency from the oil industry in the Pacific Northwest. According to an Oregon Public Broadcasting report published in early February, it took two months for Washington State officials to figure out that the oil industry had already started moving increased tar sands crude on long trains throughout the state.

Washington's own Department of Ecology has already admitted that it doesn't have enough resources to address a surprise tar sands spill. Nor does it help that tar sands crude poses an especially destructive threat to aquatic ecosystems, and a major spill near the Columbia River could mean devastation for struggling salmon and steelhead populations unable to breed in toxic muck.

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But Washington State legislators are now considering another alternative in the name of oil train safety: A pipeline! Last week, Senator Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) proposed a bill that would study the benefits of installing one big pipeline across the state, on the premise that one big pipeline would be safer than several trains.

It's an argument that makes little sense when you tally up roughly 8,000 significant pipeline spills that have occurred since 1986, Margolis says.

"That is not an argument I can subscribe to," Margolis adds. "Pipelines leak; they have their own problems. Really, what it comes down to is there's no safe way to transport [oil]."

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In this 30-minute multimedia experience, lights & sounds guide groups as they explore a series of immersive spaces.