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Aerial view of marine terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor in Washington State. (Image courtesy of Port of Grays Harbor)
Aerial view of marine terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor in Washington State. (Image courtesy of Port of Grays Harbor)

Washington pens list of recommendations for oil terminal projects

A letter from the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to the Department of Ecology outlines a plethora of railroad safety concerns the commission has over the crude-by-rail storage facilities proposed for the Port of Grays Harbor.

The letter, dated Nov. 30, came on the final day of the Department of Ecology’s public comment period following the release of the draft environmental impact statements for the projects, which was released on Aug. 31. The statements outlined potential environmental and economic impacts of two crude-oil-storage facilities proposed for Westway and Imperium’s Port properties.

Imperium’s facility was purchased this summer by Iowa-based Renewable Energy Group.

The commission’s letter breaks down its safety concerns by category, including bridges, public and private railroad crossings, signage along the track, issues with sections of the track itself and switching operations. The letter also outlines recommendations for the Department of Ecology to address the various concerns.

The commission’s general functions include regulating businesses in the electric, telecommunications, natural gas and water industries, and overseeing costs of those services to ensure fairness to both the companies and the consumers, according to the commission’s mission statement.

The commission’s first section of concern centers on the load capacity of the 52 bridges that sit along the Puget Sound &Pacific rail line between Centralia and the Port. The draft statements from Ecology, the commission’s letter says, do not address this concern thoroughly enough.

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“The draft statements of both Westway and Imperium project proposals provide very brief and general descriptions of the 52 bridges on this line, and equally brief reference to a future maintenance project to upgrade three steel bridges,” the letter says, providing citations from Ecology’s draft. “This lack of detail is insufficient to determine whether the infrastructure can safely accommodate the increased loads envisioned in the proposed projects.”

The commission’s recommendations include demonstrating that a “qualified inspector” verify the 52 bridges’ load capacities, and to make the inspection reports publicly accessible. It also calls for inspections to occur annually and describe which bridges are due for upgrades.

The letter also calls into question the safety of public and private crossings along the line, adding that the draft statements do not make mention of many of the private crossings in the Federal Railroad Administration’s crossing inventory. Seventeen public crossings the commission has identified as “at risk” crossings — crossings “that require further study and field analysis” before taking on rail cars carrying crude oil — were also omitted from the draft statements, the letter says.

Of the 17 at-risk public crossings listed in the letter, 16 are in Grays Harbor County.

“The draft statements must address more fully how the companies intend to address safety at these crossings,” the letter says.

The letter recommends that Puget Sound &Pacific be required to conduct on-site diagnostic reviews of those 17 crossings with commission staff and either city or county officials.

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For the concerns in regard to the private crossings, the letter recommends the railroad be required to provide a list of private crossings along the line and comply with regulations outlined in House Bill 1449, which, since taking effect on July 1, has given “the commission limited authority over private crossings on crude-oil transportation routes,” according to the letter.

The letter also pointed to language in the draft statements it deemed “unnecessary,” specifically pointing to a section on crossing signage that would require the rail line to display a toll-free telephone number and unique crossing code for drivers to report accidents or malfunctions at the crossings.

“These measures are already mandated by federal regulation, which required PS&P to install such signage by Sept. 1, 2015,” the letter says. “If the railroad has not yet installed the required signage, the commission will address this as a compliance issue before any oil is transported on this line.”

The letter ultimately recommends not including such language about such signage in the final statement.

The letter also points to issues with the track itself, particularly in regard to a 1,000-foot section about 4 miles west of Montesano, where three trains derailed in 2014 “due to poor soil conditions” the letter says. The speed limit along that section of the line has since been brought down from 25 mph to 10 mph.

The letter recommends Ecology “require PS&P to address the underlying soil issues before it transports volatile Bakken crude oil, regardless of the speed at which the trains travel.”

The letter was also critical of how the statement addressed blocked crossings. Though the letter says the commission ultimately has no jurisdiction over blocked public grade crossings, it said it “has significant concerns about blocked crossings from the cumulative effect of both the Westway and Imperium proposals.”

The commission aimed some of its most critical language at the issue of the railroad’s switching operations — the switching of rail cars from one line to another. The switching operations planned for crude-oil cars along the line, according to the letter — which cites sections of the draft statements — would “occupy public crossings longer than other feasible switching movements,” the letter says.

The draft statement for the Imperium Renewable project “states that although other switching movements may block the crossings for a shorter period, they are not the ‘most time-efficient and cost-efficient,'” the letter says, citing language from the statement.

The commission, in its letter, adds: Choosing to inconvenience businesses and citizens and create unnecessary safety problems related to blocked public crossings because it is more ‘time-efficient and cost-efficient’ to the railroad is not acceptable.”

Ultimately, the letter recommends that the applicants, the Port and Puget Sound &Pacific resolve the issue with the City of Aberdeen, local businesses and residents before moving forward with the projects.

The final recommendation suggests the state require Puget Sound &Pacific be financially responsible for a potential oil spill.

Comments on the draft statements are still being sorted by ICF International, the consultant the state used to conduct the environmental impact statements, said Department of Ecology spokesman Chase Gallagher. The number of comments from private individuals, organizations and local, state and federal agencies, Gallagher added, were approaching 100,000.

The final environmental impact statements are expected to be released sometime in 2016.

(c)2015 The Daily World, Aberdeen, Wash.

This article was written by KYLE MITTAN from The Daily World, Aberdeen, Wash. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.