Mayors and city officials are scrambling to find ways to deal with an onslaught of new freight-rail traffic in Washington, with new projects seemingly coming online daily. Some of their frustrations are finding voice in public meetings to determine the scope of environmental review of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham.
That project would add 18 unit trains a day to traffic in the region, which is already at or near capacity in some sections, particularly the area from Everett to the Canadian border. At least 15 trains a day are in that section now, capacity for some choke points; Gateway Pacific Terminal would more than double that traffic when it reaches full operation later in the decade.
Regional rail traffic is facing severe stress as regional refineries look to the huge Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to feed their plants. Alaskan crude, the major source for the refineries, is past its peak and the Bakken fields are yet to be fully developed. Alaskan crude is carried in large ocean tankers; Bakken oil arrives via unit trains on the BNSF railway's tracks.
Tesoro's refinery at Anacortes has opened an addition that will add two trains a day — one full, the other returning — to haul Bakken oil. The BP refinery at Cherry Point has announced it will begin accepting Bakken oil as soon as 2014, adding about two trains a day (full and returning) when the facility reaches capacity. (A caution to those following stories of unit trainsÑalways check the figures to see if they include empty return trains as well as full trains; the difference is 100 percent.
In addition to oil, a proposed water-bottling plant at Anacortes would add another four trains a day — full and empty — to the system. The Tethys Enterprise proposal to build a plant still faces serious opposition in Anacortes, and a similar proposal was rejected in Everett, but it has a contract with the city of Anacortes for 5 million gallons of Skagit River water.
Tacoma's U.S. Oil and Refining Co. plant has begun accepting Bakken crude, and will add two unit trains a week to the load. The Tacoma News-Tribune reports that the Port of Tacoma is also looking at several proposals to build a bulk liquids handling facility on its former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site.
In British Columbia, the Port of South Surrey is moving ahead to add a coal export facility to barge some 4 million tons of Wyoming coal a year to Texada Island to be loaded on coal ships; the plan would add about two trains a day to the present four coal trains moving through Washington state to British Columbia. Vancouver's Neptune Terminal is looking to add 6 million tons of coal a year to its current 12-million ton capacity, but the shipments will be within Canada.
Do the math: To the existing rail traffic of at least 15 trains a day, Bakken oil will potentially add another six-plus trains a day; the Anacortes bottling plant potentially adds another four, and Gateway Pacific another 18 trains daily.
The total increase — if all the proposals come to fruition — would add more than 40 trains a day to a system that in some places is not designed, according to state rail studies, for more than 15 trains a day. And nearly all of the new trains would be the giant unit trains of up to 150 cars, a mile-and-a-half in length.
Northwest Washington wouldn't be impacted by a proposed coalport in Longview, but the estimated 16 trains a day it would generate will contribute to clogging the rail lines from Wyoming to Longview.
There is little public process involved in some of these proposals; British Columbia environmental reviews are lax but anti-coal forces are protesting, and the oil-train proposals in Anacortes, Cherry Pont and Tacoma face minimal or no public review.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!