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Oil on the Tracks: Pacific Northwest Rises for Rail Safety

The rapid rise in moving crude oil by rail and sea vessels has the people of Washington State up in arms over whether to move it at all.

(Photo: Sam Beebe)

If there were ever any question about how the public feels about “moving time bombs,” or oil trains carrying volatile crude through the state’s coastal estuaries, aquifers, population centers and tribal lands, the answers began at the crack of dawn and ricocheted into the night. At a five-hour-plus hearing, the public weighed in on a draft report on oil train safety and spill response issued by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Raging Grannies, chained together in rocking chairs, started the day by blocking the entrance to Ecology offices. The Department of Ecology, said the Grannies, was closed for a workshop on “How to Say No to Oil.” By evening, the stand-off was over, but the public hearing had just begun. Longshoreman, railroad workers, and first responders expressed concerns about safety, crew capacity, and training. Tribes spoke of threats to drinking water and fishing rights. Millennials and boomers demanded fossil fuels stay in the ground. Mayors and county commissioners, including some who had passed resolutions against any oil trains moving through their communities, demanded clean energy alternatives.

In June, Governor Inslee, considered among the nation’s greenest, issued an Oil Transport Directive to the Department of Ecology outlining key issues he wanted to see addressed in a draft marine and oil train transportation study. Public safety and a “continuous supply of oil spill response equipment” were central. But for longshoreman Cager Clabaugh, President of ILWU Local 4 in Vancouver, Washington, a port city at the mouth of the Columbia River where it meets the Pacific, the draft doesn’t go nearly far enough. “Industry has proven that they cannot handle their product safely,” he says, “and that worries us.” There are hurricane force storms “pretty much September through May,” says Clabaugh. “How does that clean-up look when you’ve got waves that are moving Volkswagen-size boulders on the jetty? How do you clean that up? And the answer is you don’t…”

The risks to the public and to the safety of the 8,000 firefighters he represents, said Geoff Simpson from the Washington State Council of Firefighters, are too great. The council issued a unanimous resolution calling upon the Governor to halt the transportation of Bakken crude “until it can be determined it can move safely through our communities.” Last year’s explosion of a train loaded with crude from North Dakota which killed 47 and leveled a section of the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec still has the public and firefighters on edge. Since then, there have been accidents in Alabama, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In July, a train derailed in downtown Seattle, but the oil was contained. Even the most well-equipped fire departments in Washington, says Simpson, are not prepared or equipped for disasters of the kind that have been seen across the continent.

Bakken crude from shale formations in North Dakota and provinces in southern Canada is headed in record volume to the Pacific Northwest. There’s so much oil planned for movement via rail and pipeline to the area that the region couldn’t begin to refine it all, the Sightline Institute’s energy analyst, Eric de Place, told Truthout. Sightline has written numerous reports on the race oil refineries are engaged in to get permits to build more capacity. Oil refineries along the Pacific Northwest coast are racing to get permits to build more capacity. Eleven refineries and port terminals in Washington and Oregon are either already operating oil-by-rail shipments or in the planning and building stage. Were they to operate at full capacity, state officials estimate it would put 19 loaded mile-long trains per day on the Northwest’s rail corridors.

Testimony by Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Mike Elliott, brought cheers from the estimated 800 member crowd. “The railroads,” said Elliott, referring to BNSF which owns the Pacific Northwest Corridor, one of eleven federally designated high speed rail corridors in the US, “keep pushing the envelope on safety and try to remove crew. Why? For more profit. We need to put our foot down and say enough is enough. You’ve gone from six member crews to five, to four, to two. Now they want to go a single-person train crew.” BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas denies the railroad has plans to reduce crews to one. But he did not address other questions posed by this reporter. One of the most pressing is the widespread use of DOT.111 rail cars, whose lack of reinforcement in their shells has caused them to be deadly.

Draft regulations proposed by the Department of Transportation on DOT.111s allow a three year phase-out. Public interest groups including Earthjustice, ForestEthics, and Oil Change International, are among many groups demanding an immediate ban on the explosion-prone rail cars. The groups have also called upon the Obama administration to impose speed limits, require state of the art braking systems for crude-by-rail trains, and prohibit shifting DOT-111 tank cars to tar sands crude transport. Rail corridors and refineries in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia are also receiving Bakken crude.

West Coast refineries have ramped up crude-by-rail volume in recent years to partially offset declines in production from California and Alaska.

Tesoro, which currently has capacity to unload 50,000 barrels per day at its refinery in Anacortes, Washington, has proposed a 360,000 barrels per day facility at the Port of Vancouver.

Lisa Copeland, a spokesperson for the Washington Department, welcomed public input at the hearing but said the department did not have regulating authority to say “No” to more oil trains. “It’s a federal issue, and that’s part of the whole crux of the study. We have a great response record of prevention preparedness and response on the marine side. Now we have to look at the inland side.”

Friends of the Earth Northwest consultant Fred Felleman disputes whether the state has been able to keep up with the changing risks associated with crude being shipped down the Columbia to terminals, tar sands barged to various ports on the coast, or increasing congestion at anchorages associated with the movement of oil all along the coasts of Washington, British Columbia, Oregon and California. In his testimony, he said volume shipped on the water may be down, but tanker and barge traffic are up due to increased use of unregulated barges and tugs, which the Congressional Research Service calls “Rule breakers.” What’s more, says Felleman, “State refineries are already operating at twice their built capacity. Yet the draft oil train study continues to parrot the oil industry’s baseless assertion that they have no intention of increasing capacity at this time.” This flies in the face of history, he notes. Every five years, industry has asked for and been granted more permits to build increased capacity. “So we could be in a situation where not only are we supplying oil by land and sea for our own domestic consumption, but for export.” The oil industry’s number one priority, he says, has been to lift the domestic export ban in order to ship crude overseas. With a Republican-controlled Senate and Congress, that may very well be possible.

States have had some success in blocking permits for expanded refinery capacity and crude trans-loading operations based on inadequate public and environmental review. Earthjustice appealed a permit granted to Shell by a regional clean air agency to expand capacity in Anacortes, WA. On October 22nd,the Sacramento air district reversed course after rubber-stamping a permit allowing Inter-State Oil Company to transfer Bakken crude oil from rail to truck without public or environmental review. Meanwhile, in response to inadequate federal proposals for regulating transport of volatile crude oil by rail, the Center for Biological Diversity, Adirondack Mountain Club and Friends of the Columbia Gorge have called for an immediate ban on puncture-prone tank cars involved in several explosive accidents.

Washington State’s preliminary oil train report is scheduled to be delivered to Governor Inslee in December.

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