Ecology adopts rule to strengthen railroads’ oil spill response efforts

New rule ensures railroads transporting oil are even more prepared to respond to a spill than before

Failing to plan for an oil spill is a risk we can’t afford to take. Washington has one of the lowest oil spill rates of any state in the nation because we routinely assess spill risks and take measures to keep pace with changing trends in how oil is moved around the state, and emerging spill response capabilities. Our planning work with railroads is vital because rail lines stretch across thousands of miles in Washington, crossing many rivers, streams, bays, harbors, and aquifers. Ecology just completed rulemaking work to increase spill preparedness and response requirements of companies that move oil by rail. Specifically, this rule requires rail companies to:

  • Enhance readiness requirements for non-floating oils — Washington wants to address response measures for oils that may degrade and sink when spilled. This type of oil is a challenge to traditional cleanup plans that are designed to respond to floating oils.
  • Establish new requirements for spill and wildlife response teams — Spill Management Teams are the groups of people who respond to oil spills. Wildlife response service providers locate and care for oiled animals during a spill.
  • Require railroad operators to conduct new oil spill preparedness drills — Drills help companies and their partners (local governments, tribes, state and federal agencies, etc.) know what to do when an oil spill occurs. Companies will be required to test their plans and staff, depending on the size of their operation and type of oil they transport.
  • Streamline plans for smaller rail lines — Some short-line railroads haul non-crude oils, such as lube and vegetable oils, as cargo. Though these small railroad companies do not carry crude oil and serve small communities, oil of any kind is an environmental toxin and planning for spills is important. The new rules streamline planning requirements for smaller rail companies, depending on the type and volume of non-crude oil carried. 

An oil train moving through Richmond Beach

An oil train moving through Richmond Beach

Railroads provide important contributions to all of us, by funding the pre-staged response equipment we have throughout the state. It’s there in case it ever needs to be used. These updates will help protect Washington’s vital environmental, cultural, and economic resources. The rule passage concludes a long public process that included several public hearings and a comment period.

This rule is the next evolution of several legislative efforts to reduce the threat to the environment, human health, and local economies from a rail spill, the first being the Oil Transportation Safety Act in 2015.

The adopted rule will go into effect on January 18, 2020. With the passage of this rule, railroads transporting oil in Washington will be better prepared to respond to a spill of various types of oil, work closely with spill management teams and wildlife response service providers, and train routinely on a number of scenarios. For more information about this rulemaking, visit our webpage.