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Senate Hearing on Oil Bill Focused on Industry

Tuesday, state lawmakers held a public hearing in Spokane about a senate bill on oil train safety. It came about a week after the governor ordered state agencies to study risks from oil spills. Instead of addressing the senate bill, or governor’s order, the hearing primarily served as an update from the oil industry.

At the front of the room were Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications committee members, including Andy Billig of Spokane. Senator Michael Baumgartner of Spokane is not on the committee but also attended, as a bill sponsor. 

Baumgartner: “We’ve had rail here for so long in Spokane, it’s been one of the backbones of our ecomony here, but we really need to make sure that safe rail is the bedrock of what we have moving forward.”

The committee heard from Kari Cutting of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, who asserted that crude oil is not the most volatile of oils. Then representatives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe gave a presentation about the company’s safety measures.

The lawmakers pressed the speakers with questions. For example, Billig asked why the companies don’t use the safest train cars every time, and Senator Maralyn Chase wondered if crude oil is more flammable than other oils.
The mood shifted to frustration when it was time for public testimony. City Council president Ben Stuckart sums up what a handful of speakers said.

Stuckart: “I’m a little disappointed that the first hour and a half of this was the North Dakota Petroleum Association and BNSF. When I attended the house hearing last year for the oil transportation safety act, the Washington Department of Ecology gave a great presentation on that much more comprehensive bill.”

The overwhelming majority of speakers shifted the focus to the house bill that died in committee last year. The house bill focused on alerting people on when oil trains or shipments are coming through the state, while the senate bill hinges on raising funds for emergency responders to work on oil accidents. A few speakers, one from the Lands Council environmental group, referred to crude oil shipments as ‘oil bombs’.

It's a hot topic now, but the legislative session is now until January. Stuckart suggests the hearing may have had something to do with this being an election year for Senator Baumgartner, and Senator Doug Ericksen, who also attended as a committee member.
Copyright 2014 Spokane Public Radio

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