Railroad tank cars are unloaded on a loop track at a refinery in Delaware City, Delaware. July 28, 2013. The refinery receives 110,000 barrels of crude oil a day, which is about 150 cars, or two trainloads. The shipments originate in the Bakken region of North Dakota, the center of a new American oil boom. With a shortage of new pipeline capacity, oil producers have been using rail as an alternative, and in some cases it's the preferred mode. (Curtis Tate/MCT) - MCT

Regulators look at Northwest oil train safety

SEATTLE — Environmental regulators from the Northwest deliberated Wednesday about the dramatic changes in the way oil and other energy products are carried through the region.

At a task force meeting of West Coast states, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis of the Washington Department of Ecology described the sudden increase in oil trains coming into the state and traveling along the Columbia River. She said oil-spill response resources have typically focused on tanker traffic off the coast or pipeline routes, so the new transport strategies will require new tactics, new technologies and new personnel around inland water resources.

"We have quite a lot of work today as we start shifting our focus inland," Pilkey-Jarvis said.

Meanwhile, officials from British Columbia described how a proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline and other ways of moving crude oil could lead to an increase in tanker traffic along the province's west coast and in water bodies close to Washington and Alaska. That increased traffic will also bring increased risk, officials said.

"There's big, big developments going on in British Columbia, and those developments are going to impact neighboring states," said D'Arcy Sego, emergency planning analyst at the Ministry of Environment in British Columbia.

Industry officials also attended a conference that was part of the task force meeting. They touted the safety of the transportation methods and the environmental oversight.

Several West Coast governments — Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii — have been involved in the conversations. The goal has been to give states a place to share ideas and information about oil spill prevention and mitigation.

The issue of oil trains isn't isolated to the region, but it has challenged officials typically used to preparing for oil shipments in other ways. Looming over that discussion has been the disaster in Quebec in July in which an unattended train rolled away and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic near the Maine border, triggering explosions, the destruction of the town's center and the deaths of 47 people.

Patrick Brady of BNSF Railway said the Quebec disaster was an anomaly. He touted company stats showing very few numbers of accidents or spills and contended that moving hazardous materials by rail is 16 times safer than on roads.

In the first half of this year, U.S. railroads moved 178,000 carloads of crude oil. That's double the number during the same period last year and 33 times more than during the same period in 2009.

Much of that increase is from oil produced in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and surrounding areas.

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