State imposes full $71,700 fine on BNSF for hazardous spills

By Jerry Cornfield
Everett Herald Writer

OLYMPIA – The state Utilities and Transportation Commission on Monday imposed a $71,700 fine on BNSF Railway for failing to timely report several spills of hazardous materials, including one at Cherry Point.

And commissioners ordered the company to pay the full penalty, axing a provision in a proposed settlement to suspend $40,000 of the fine if no new violations of state accident reporting laws occur for a year.

“The Settlement covers 239 serious violations by a very large company that has violated its regulatory obligations in the recent past,” commissioners wrote.

Imposing the entire penalty, they said “would be more effective than suspending and waiving a portion of that amount, both to provide BNSF with an additional incentive to comply with its reporting obligations and to penalize the company for its past failure to do so.”

BNSF has 10 days to pay the fine, according to a commission press release. It has five days to accept the order or contest the conditions.

“BNSF is currently reviewing the order issued today by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission,” company spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an email. “BNSF strives to comply in good faith with all applicable requirements outlined by state and federal regulatory agencies.”

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

The commission action stems from an investigation by UTC inspectors of unreported incidents which occurred between Nov. 1, 2014 and Feb. 24.

Inspectors found BNSF failed to timely report spills and leaks of lube oil, diesel, gas and hazardous solid waste at sites in south Seattle, Everett, Vancouver, Auburn and Blaine.

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 for a potential of $700,000 in fines.

UTC staff reduced the number of alleged violations to 239 after some incidents did get reported to operations center but that information was not initially shared with the commission.

In August, the commission staff and BNSF officials reached the settlement agreement to avert a lengthy legal battle and push BNSF toward “maximum achievable compliance.”

But on Monday commissioners decided that deal was not strong enough.

In addition to the penalty, commissioners ordered BNSF to provide the regulatory agency with a document describing in detail what constitutes a reportable spill event and the kinds of hazardous materials covered in those reports.

The firm also must provide the commission with information on the specific steps BNSF will take to assure its compliance with reporting requirements in the future. The information is due by Feb. 16, 2016.

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