THE BLOG
06/18/2014 07:19 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2014

When a Public Hearing Isn't for the Public; Oil Train Hearing in Spokane, WA Leaves Public Frustrated

Earlier this week, members of the Washington State Senate's Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee held a public hearing on oil trains and oil transport safety in Spokane, WA in the Spokane City Council chambers at Spokane City Hall. The hearing was organized by Senators Mike Baumgartner (R-Spokane) and Doug Ericksen (R-Bellingham) who during last year's legislative session proposed SB 6524 that called for more studies in regards to the safety of the transport of hazardous materials through the state. The bill was quite a bit weaker than a bill proposed by the Washington Environmental Priorities Coalition, and was often referred to as the industry bill.

The significance of such a hearing being held in Spokane shouldn't be understated as these hearings are typically held in Olympia at the Capital, but also because of all the cities in the state of Washington, Spokane the greater Inland Northwest are significantly more at risk to an increase in oil trains due to the proximity and quantity of rail lines through the community.

Spokane Riverkeeper, and many others in attendance, attended the hearing with a goal of hearing from Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen about their bill and any possible (or hopeful) changes that they may be thinking going forward, and to testify concerns about the aforementioned bill for not being strong and specific enough, and to testify general and / or specific concerns about Bakken crude oil trains traveling through Spokane and surrounding communities.

Little did many of us in attendance know, though I suppose we should have expected, that Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen planned an extremely frustrating two hours of stalling and industry speak with very little public testimony and barely any mention of Spokane and the impacts shipping crude oil poses to Spokane and surrounding communities.

Representatives from the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) took up roughly 100 of the 120 minutes of the hearing with occasional questioning and comments from other members of the Senate committee. And with those questions, industry rarely answered with specifics and almost always pivoted away to comfortable talking points.

Frustrations from those in attendance in the Council Chambers started appearing almost immediately as the rep from the North Dakota Petroleum Council went very deep in to a PowerPoint presentation disputing claims about Bakken crude oil is more flammable or more dangerous using complicated slides and numbers about flash points and chemistry factors.

Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder took to Twitter to express frustrations:

At State Senate hearing on Oil Trains in Spokane: more of a chemistry lesson than a safety discussion. Thx @andybillig for good questions.

— jonbsnyder (@jonbsnyder) June 17, 2014

At one point during the extremely long, boring and not particularly on topic presentation from the oil industry, Senator Mike Baumgartner spoke up and asked for the rep to speak in layman's terms and say yes or no, Bakken Crude oil is more flammable and more dangerous than other types of products. To which the rep responded, "no, it's the same", and which also provided the Republican Senate staffer who was live Tweeting the hearing a very likable and shareable tweet to attribute to Senator Baumgartner who conveniently enough is in the midst of a reelection campaign. More on this convenient irony later.

But more importantly, the claim that Bakken crude is not as dangerous is not only controversial, but also on the wrong side of not only public perception but regulatory movement, as can be seen in a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announcement from earlier this year.

Next up were a few suits from BNSF who spent most of their time lauding investments that BNSF is or has made to make their company and their equipment safer, for themselves, and little or no time talking about how to make Spokane or surrounding communities safer.

Since I won't likely be able to testify: what BNSF won't tell you: they are upgrading their safety more than ours. @sprlocalnews

— jonbsnyder (@jonbsnyder) June 17, 2014

Then the kicker was BNSF often repeating that 2013 was their safest year to date, when in fact it was wildly reported earlier this year that more oil was spilled in 2013 from BNSF trains than the previous 38 years total.

With the 18 minutes that were left in the hearing, members of the public, those with persistence, were given an opportunity to speak to the Committee and those who spoke almost all testified to concerns for shipping dangerous Bakken crude through Spokane and the Inland Northwest, especially given the litany of recent oil train accidents and the increasing and louder call for more transparency, more safety and more certainty. A recap of concerns can be found via this news article from The Spokesman-Review.

If this truly was a hearing for Spokane, by Spokane, we most certainly would have seen, and would have been right to expect to see presentations or statements from various response or regulatory agencies in the area who would be responsible if something were to happen in Spokane. Nowhere or at no time did we hear from any of those agencies or representatives. Which leads me to conclude that this was never intended to be any more than a highly politicized campaign opportunity for two Senators in heated reelection bids.

Yes, it was a big deal, or could have ben a big deal that the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee came to Spokane for this hearing. But I couldn't help to think that right off the bat the whole thing was stacked against the public. The hearing was at 10:30 a.m., a very difficult time for members of the public and concerned citizens to participate . I found it funny that Senator Baumgartner used his welcome address to say, "this is good for Spokane as many folks here find it difficult to travel to Olympia to participate in the process like this.". To which I would say, Senator Baumgartner, this hearing didn't make anything easier. A quick glance around the Council Chambers also showed that there were far more more lobbyists, industry staffers, and other "paid to be there" attendees than members of the public.

Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen are both very savvy politicians. Oil train shipments through Spokane and the state of Washington is a very heated issue. Their bill last year was an industry bill at best, offering nothing more than more studies and more hearings and little in the way of what residents of this state want which is transparency, safety and some level of assurance. Being their both in reelection mode, having this hearing in Spokane, completely loaded with industry jargon to stall and delay public concerns gave them an opportunity to look like the good guys who are tackling an issue that the constituents want them to. Having the state Senate Republican party there live Tweeting the event to make it look like Baumgartner and Ericksen were getting to the bottom of the public's concerns was almost too good to be true.

And you know what, it worked. Coverage of the hearing was picked up by news outlets around the state and the region, and all of the coverage painted Senators Baumgartner and Ericksen as the leaders of the concerns. When in fact it was the mere 18 minutes of testimony from the public and questions from other members of the Senate committee that elevated the concerns and asked the questions important to Spokane.

Amazing how much influence the public had with 18 minutes. Imagine if this really was a public hearing.