Trains hauling flammable crude oil pass within a half mile of about 30,000 Kennewick residents and 10,000 Pasco residents about twice each day.
With four fiery derailments of oil trains in North America since February, Tri-City officials are looking to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for help.
There could be six more derailments this year, according to the federal Department of Transportation.
“If it happens here in the Tri-Cities, the effect would be catastrophic,” Cantwell said during a visit to Pasco Friday that included a discussion with city fire and other officials. “These accidents shoot fireballs hundreds of feet into the sky, and they burn for days.”
Firefighters responding to derailments have said they could do little more than stand a half-mile back and let the fires burn, Cantwell said.
A derailment at the Pasco rail yard could require evacuations of the Franklin County jail, Lourdes Medical Center, schools, city hall and a fire station, according to officials who met with Cantwell.
The trains that come into Pasco, then follow the Columbia River for 200 miles, create a threat to water quality, said Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear. Each train can have up to 110 cars with 30,000 gallons apiece when full.
About 17 oil trains a week pass through Pasco. The number is expected to increase to four or five a day no later than the end of 2016, Gear said.
On the return trip from Western Washington, the trains pass through Kennewick, crossing Columbia Center Boulevard before traveling near Kamiakin High School and along Canal Drive.
“These empty trains are not empty,” said Kennewick Mayor Steve Young. “They still hold 10 to 15 percent of that fuel oil inside of those cars.”
The volatile gases inside the mostly empty tank cars are much quicker to explode and react, he said.
“We need to reduce the severity of the derailments. To do that we need to reduce the volatility of the product,” Gear said.
Cantwell introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015 last week with Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The first step needed is to limit the volatile components of crude oil — propane, butane, methane and ethane — that is shipped by rail. The legislation calls for a temporary rule within 90 days and a permanent rule within two years limiting volatility.
Step two is to phase in thicker tanks, Cantwell said. The United States now has 37,000 tank cars that need to be taken out of service, and that many train cars could be produced or retrofitted this year.
If the thinner-walled cars derail, they puncture more easily and the vapors cause a massive explosion, she said.
BNSF Railway Co. already has announced plans to buy 5,000 new tank cars to transport oil, mostly from the Bakken formation in North Dakota.
The standards set by the proposed legislation would require thermal protection, full-height head shields, shells more than half an inch thick, pressure relief valves and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
With those improvements in place, firefighters and other responders could be given training and equipment to respond to what should be less catastrophic accidents, the senator said.
Cantwell’s legislation would authorize $40 million for training programs, grants for communities to update emergency response plans and improved emergency notification procedures.
Rail carriers would be required to develop comprehensive emergency response plans for large accidents involving fire or explosions, provide information on shipments to state and local officials along routes — including what is shipped and its level of volatility — and to work with federal and local officials on their response plans.
“We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our communities and give first responders the tools they need,” Cantwell said.
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