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Ferndale senator’s handling of oil safety hearing slammed by critics

Ralph Schwartz | The Bellingham Herald

Political rivals and environmentalists are criticizing Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, for a public hearing he held in Spokane on the safety of trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. Most of the time at the June 17 hearing was taken by oil and rail officials. Local officials and residents came away frustrated by the lack of opportunity to speak.

Ericksen defended the hearing, saying he gave everyone who signed up a chance to speak. The hearing was on an oil-by-rail safety bill that was favored by Republicans in this winter’s legislative session but which nonetheless died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The bill lived on, Ericksen said, in a June 11 directive from Gov. Jay Inslee, which called on the Department of Ecology to work with other agencies to improve oil spill prevention and response.

Ecology has an Oct. 1 deadline to complete its report, which is to include an investigation into whether transporting oil from the Bakken rock formation in North Dakota is more dangerous than moving oil from other sources.

The transport of Bakken oil by rail has increased dramatically the past few years, as North Dakota has become the second-largest producer of oil in the U.S. Increased Bakken train traffic has brought a string of derailments and spills or fires. In July 2013, a 71-car train loaded with Bakken crude crashed and spilled burning oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border, killing 47 people.

Following several of these derailments, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a safety alert on Jan. 2, stating that “the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

Related: Minnesota lawmaker seeks more state railroad oil safety oversight

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, denied that Bakken was more volatile at the June 17 hearing. Cutting’s presentation took 45 minutes, compared to the 26 minutes allotted for all members of the general public who spoke.

Cutting initially evaded questions about Bakken’s suspected higher volatility but eventually settled on an answer.

“Bakken is not materially different than other crude oils. It’s following the same rules of transportation,” Cutting said.

Ericksen, who led the hearing as chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, thanked Cutting for what he took as a satisfying answer to the Bakken volatility question.

“The key thing to keep in mind for the public is that Bakken crude has been characterized as much more volatile, explosive,” Ericksen said. “I appreciate you being here today to clear up some of those claims out there with regards to, is it substantially, materially different than other crude products that are in the system today.”

Ericksen was less gracious to Spokane-area residents and leaders who came to the hearing to speak, the senator’s critics said. Several spoke in opposition to the Republican oil safety bill, saying they preferred the “stronger” version introduced by the Democrat-controlled House.

Ericksen responded to these criticisms by pressing the speakers to be more specific.

Kerry McHugh of the Washington Environmental Council who attended the hearing said the public got unfair treatment.

“It was a little frustrating to me to hear some pointed questions from the chair to citizens, when he didn’t have questions with the same level of specificity for an industry group like the North Dakota Petroleum Council,” McHugh said.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, criticized Ericksen’s hearing in an interview on Monday, June 23.

“Doug unfortunately forced an agenda that was entirely one-sided and allowed the North Dakota Petroleum Council and BNSF to discuss why their trains were not a threat to our communities for almost the entire meeting agenda. Shockingly, he did not even allow a panel representing our community concerns to present our side,” Ranker said.

McHugh and others said the hearing was a “missed opportunity” to hear from people who live far from Olympia and don’t ordinarily get to testify before a state committee. Those same Spokane-area citizens have about 16 trains a week loaded with Bakken crude rolling through their community, according to BNSF data released Tuesday.

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart told the committee he was “a little disappointed” that almost 90 minutes were given to the oil industry and BNSF Railway.

Ericksen said in an interview he extended the hearing to give everyone a chance to speak.

“Everybody who signed up, prior to and during the hearing, had an opportunity to speak,” Ericksen said. He acknowledged people’s frustration at waiting more than an hour and a half to speak.

“I thought it was important to get some facts and information out there,” he said.

Ericksen’s bill may not be revived because a new Legislature will convene after the 2014 elections. But much of the bill’s goals were requested by Inslee in his June 11 directive, Ericksen said.

“Despite the bill not passing, Gov. Inslee is using it as a blueprint for his executive order,” Ericksen said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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