Kent City Council considers oil train resolution because of safety concerns

With more and more crude oil trains expected to rumble through downtown, the Kent City Council wants to help make sure its residents and businesses are protected from any potential derailments.

That's why the council's Public Works Committee on Monday discussed a resolution it plans to send June 17 to the full council that lays out steps it wants the state and federal governments to take to help protect Kent.

"I know that we are doing as a city everything we can to be as prepared as possible," Council President Dana Ralph said. "It's about communication. It's not anti-trains, anti-commerce or anti-oil. It's simply we need to do everything we can to keep this community safe and that has a lot to do with communication and knowing what is being transported through our city. Those trains are a mile-plus long.

"And there are the issues of traffic and congestion and all of those things that go along with it. I'm very pleased to see this moving forward and that we continue to keep close watch on any things that are happening and changes in places that we may be able to be advocates for the safety of our city."

Monica Whitman, city senior transportation planner, told the committee that staff compiled the resolution at the request of the council because of the anticipated increase in the number of oil trains in the coming years from the Bakken formation in North Dakota. It's oil that is more explosive as illustrated by a 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed 40 people and destroyed 30 buildings.

New oil terminals are proposed for the state in Vancouver, Ferndale and Anacortes. The Vancouver City Council, however, this week voted 5-2 against a proposed terminal at Fort Vancouver because of safety concerns.

The National League of Cities, King County and the cities of Seattle and Auburn have developed resolutions in connection with concerns about oil trains, Whitman said.

"There's a lot of attention on this issue," she said.

BNSF Railway handles the transport of many of the oil trains and increased its capital budget by $1 billion this past year out of a total capital budget of $5 billion, Whitman said.

"That's how quickly they are expanding," she said. "They plan to increase staff by 5,000 employees. They are purchasing 500 new locomotives and 5,000 of the next generation oil tanker cars. They are in the oil business."

With eight railroad crossings in the city nearly 100,000 vehicles cross the tracks per day so when trains come through town traffic comes to a halt, Whitman said. More trains would cause more delays.

The resolution requests an environmental review, seeks clear federal guidelines to work with city about the cargo on the trains, requests federal safety regulations for the tanker cars and urges the state to adopt legislation next session to promote safety along the routes and work on preparedness in case of derailments.

The U.S. Transportation Department in May issued an emergency order that requires railroads to tell states how many oil trains are expected to travel through each state each week and the routes they will take. That new measure becomes effective in June. Railroads, however, are not required to reveal the exact days or times of the trains.

Councilman Dennis Higgins said he requested staff to write the resolution.

"After hearing and seeing the concerns around the country and accidents in Canada and seeing similar resolutions passed by our neighbors, we would like to go on record as well to make sure we are notified to the full extent about the trains," Higgins said. "It's not an anti-commerce resolution but simply to make it known that the city council is watching what's been going on around North America and wants to be kept as well informed as it possibly can about this issue."

Councilwoman Brenda Fincher said it's important with all of Kent's railroad crossings to know as much about train transports as possible.

"They (federal government and railroads) need to at least let us know what is on the trains even if they don't tell us the exact time it's coming through," Fincher said.

City staff will add to the resolution before the committee votes on it June 16 a section about requesting federal funds to help build railroad/vehicle grade separations in the city to promote safety with vehicles using overpasses or underpasses to get over the tracks.

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