State lawmakers tackle oil train safety, debate taxing every barrel of oil moved by rail

OLYMPIA -- Last week’s dramatic oil train explosion in West Virginia has given increased urgency to preventing a similar calamity in Washington state.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Olympia debated a 10-cents-a-barrel tax on all oil transported by train in Washington.

The $7 million per year would fund more railroad inspectors to help avoid derailments.  Money would also go to emergency response in case a catastrophe does happen.

Washington state has seen a massive increase in oil traveling by rail in the past few years.  In fact, the very first train carrying oil came through in 2012.  And now there are nearly 20 each week.

Environmentalists argue that Washington is increasingly at risk of a West Virginia-style disaster unless more is done.  The nightmare scenario, they point to, is a tragedy that happened two years ago in Quebec, Canada.

“The train rolled through a downtown, derailed, exploded,” said Kristen Boyles of Earthjustice.  “Forty-seven people were killed.  It leveled the downtown.  There’s billions of dollars of damage done there.  That is a horrifying possibility in any of our towns or cities.”

Washington state hasn’t had major accident, though last year an oil train did derail in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood.  There was no explosion and no spill.

Rail and oil companies are resisting this new tax, saying it’s too high, especially given the millions that they have invested in making our region’s rail lines safer.  They believe their track record should be taken into account.