Deal cuts BNSF’s potential hazardous spill fines by 90 percent

OLYMPIA — Burlington Northern Santa Fe would be fined $71,700 for failing to timely report several hazardous materials spills, including one in Blaine, under a settlement reached with Utilities and Transportation Commission staff.

Under the proposed deal, commissioners would suspend $40,000 of the penalty as long as the company commits no new violations of the statewide accident reporting rules in the next year.

A final order accepting the agreement and imposing the penalty could be issued by the commission before the end of the year.

The proposed penalty would be a fraction of the $700,000 in potential fines the company originally faced following an investigation of 14 spills which occurred between Nov. 1, 2014 and Feb. 24, 2015.

“As we’ve always said, BNSF strives to comply in good faith with all applicable regulatory requirements outlined by state and federal regulatory agencies,” BNSF Railway spokeswoman Courtney Wallace wrote Tuesday in an email.

“It is important to note that while BNSF has agreed to pay a monetary penalty, the company does not agree with every allegation outlined in the original complaint,” she wrote. “This agreement is a reflection of both BNSF’s and the UTC’s desire to reach a fair remedy.”

Under state law, railroads are required to notify the state’s Emergency Operations Center by telephone within 30 minutes of learning of a hazardous materials spill.

In October 2014, commission staff provided BNSF with technical assistance on complying with the reporting requirement. Inspectors then began an investigation to determine how well the company had responded.

UTC inspectors detailed their findings in a 98-page report released in March.

“The requirement to notify the EOC of any hazardous material release is a serious matter,” the report states. “When a company fails to notify the EOC that such an incident has occurred, the EOC will not know to identify the necessary critical response and remediation resources and agencies to respond to the incident, causing potential harm to the public. There could also be a delay in response and containment resources necessary to clean up spills of hazardous materials.”

The spills included two instances of leaking liquid of hazardous solid waste in Everett and tank cars leaking crude oil in south Seattle, Vancouver, Wash., Auburn and Blaine. Inspectors also recorded spills and leaks of lube oil, diesel, gas and hazardous solid waste at other sites.

Each day a company fails to report a spill constitutes a separate violation punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. Commission staff filed a formal complaint March 19 alleging 700 violations, hence the $700,000 in potential fines.

BNSF answered the allegations with information that led UTC staff to reduce the number of alleged violations to 239, according to a narrative accompanying the proposed settlement.

Further negotiations led to staff supporting an agreement that would avert a lengthy legal battle and push BNSF toward “maximum achievable compliance,” the narrative states.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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