Seven hundred. That’s the number of hazardous-spill reporting violations that railway giant

Seven hundred. That’s the number of hazardous-spill reporting violations that railway giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) has racked up with state regulators. Since November.

In a report released Thursday, Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) revealed that out of 16 reportable spills that BNSF had in Washington from November 2014 through February, BNSF was late or absent in reporting all but two of them—so late and so absent that those 14 incidents snowballed into 700 individual violations, worth up to $1,000 in fines apiece.

For City Council member Mike O’Brien, this is not reassuring. “What it signals to me is kind of a behavior pattern from Burlington Northern,” he says, a sort of “casualness” toward regulation. “When you take [an] already dangerous, intrinsically explosive material that you’re bringing through our community and combine it with a company that seems to be comfortable violating the laws—I worry about that mix.”

That mix is a relatively new worry for O’Brien and many others. Historically, about 90 percent of Washington’s imported crude oil has come in via boat, mostly from Alaska. But in the past decade Alaskan imports have slumped, while the quantity of crude shipped by train (and pipeline) has ballooned, largely thanks to drilling in North Dakota’s Bakken formation. This swell of new crude from the Midwest “has strained the capacity of existing oil-pipeline infrastructure,” the state Department of Ecology wrote last year, “and caused a sudden shift in the supply chain to transport by rail.”

Cue the choo-choo. Railroad companies like BNSF have an already-built transportation infrastructure to haul crude from North Dakota to refineries and seaports in the Pacific Northwest, and they have been using it. Of all the crude oil imported into Washington, the percentage borne on railroads has jumped from zero in 2011 to six percent in 2012 and more than eight percent in 2013. Last year, an average of 19 oil trains trundled through Washington every week, carrying 57 million gallons of crude spread throughout 1,900 tanker cars. The Department of Ecology estimates that, depending on how many of five currently proposed oil-transport facilities are built and how much oil Oregon and California want to import, the number of trains could triple in five years and sextuple in 20.

Bottom line: Seattle is seeing a lot of new oil trains. And the UTC’s report has raised concerns among Seattleites who were already skeptical of this new influx of crude-by-rail.

“Any individual violation is not a big deal,” says Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute, a green think tank. “But . . . it looks like there is a pattern emerging here where they may be trying to keep the public in the dark about instances where the public has been exposed to potentially dangerous substances.” As evidence of that pattern, he points to a 2011 incident in which a BNSF tanker jumped the track and spilled its contents into Puget Sound. Emergency responders were unable to reach BNSF for hours, “plac[ing] initial . . . responders in jeopardy,” the Department of Ecology later reported.

Fortunately, that spilled tanker was carrying lye, not oil. But for de Place, BNSF’s clumsy response just goes to show that Washington’s been kept safe by luck, not policy.

“Oil trains are fundamentally, structurally, by their nature, unsafe,” he says. “These things are bombs. We don’t know when they’re gonna go off, but they’re gonna go off. And if they happen in an urban area, get the body bags ready.” And get the lawyers ready, too. While BNSF’s liability insurance appears to max out around $1 billion (their press person declined to give a hard number, saying that “BNSF currently purchases what the market offers”), de Place estimates the cost of a worst-case scenario to be in the tens of billions of dollars.

“To me, that is batshit crazy,” de Place says. “I can’t imagine a clearer signal from the private marketplace that something is fundamentally unsound” than commercial insurers refusing to insure it.

Oil-train catastrophes have become increasingly common in recent years. Seattleites got lucky last summer when three BNSF tankers derailed beneath the Magnolia Bridge. That accident led to no injuries and no spill, but other locales have been less fortunate. Last month, 19 tankers erupted after a train derailed in West Virginia. A 2013 derailment near Montreal exploded about 60 oil tankers, killed 47 people, and leveled half of Lac-Megantic, Quebec’s downtown.

“Not a way I wanna go,” says O’Brien. He adds that various city departments are investigating what kind of authority, if any, Seattle has to moderate the risks of oil tankers. “It’s not fair. There’s just nothing fair about this. We have farmers in eastern Washington who can’t get their crops to market because the train tracks are full. Because the trains that used to carry their product are now carrying oil. Because they make more money on it. And they’re doing that by putting communities all along the line at risk. This is not the American dream. This is the corporate nightmare.”

For its part, BNSF insists that it’s committed to safety. Reached via e-mail, BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace says that the railroad company is “currently reviewing” the UTC’s report. Regarding “what appear to be very small releases” of hazardous material described in the report, she says, “We believed we were complying in good faith with the requirements from our agency partners.”

“I don’t think you could say that [BNSF] didn’t know” it was violating reporting requirements, says UTC spokesperson Amanda Maxwell. She points out that the UTC started working with BNSF in September—before any of the 14 incidents—to bring their reporting system into compliance with state regulations.

The devil is in the details here: While BNSF did properly file federally mandated spill reports (copies of which are sent to the UTC), the window for submitting those reports is 30 days. By contrast, Washington law requires that hazardous spills be reported via telephone to the state’s Emergency Operations Center within 30 minutes (since cleanup can be time-sensitive). According to the UTC report, BNSF failed that requirement 14 out of 16 times between November 1 and February 24; and since each day that passes counts as a separate violation, those 14 missed reports turned into 700 violations.

Wallace says that in response to concerns, BNSF has stopped running passenger trains and oil trains inside the King Street Tunnel, and has helped the Seattle Fire Department prepare by getting them a foam trailer (for oil fires), providing free crude oil derailment training, and paying for firefighters to attend specialized training in Colorado. In addition, she says, the company has a sophisticated logistical network in place to respond to disasters. “There is nothing more important to us than safely transporting all of the commodities we carry,” she says, “and we are committed to complying with all applicable local, state, and federal guidelines.”

But are those guidelines adequate? “The railroads have done an amazing job over the century,” says O’Brien, “creating a system of laws that makes it very difficult for anyone to regulate them.”

O’Brien says the city should have a better idea of its legal options within a couple of months. In the meantime, the UTC has issued a formal complaint against BNSF. The railroad company has yet to respond.