Protesters stall an oil train for hours at Anacortes

An act of civil disobedience on the refinery tracks brings three arrests.
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The standoff outside a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes

An act of civil disobedience on the refinery tracks brings three arrests.

A train attempting to leave a Tesoro oil train facility in Anacortes yesterday was stopped in its tracks when three residents of the coastal town and Seattle locked their bodies to barrels full of concrete, sat on the tracks and refused to move. During the four-hour standoff an estimated 100 BNSF rail cars were held at bay.

Authorities would not say whether the tank cars, normally used to carry Bakken field crude oil from North Dakota, had any oil at the time.

Three protesters were cited for trespass. Two of the protesters identified themselves as members of Rising Tide Seattle. Their demands included a halt to Bakken crude shipments through the Northwest, an immediate rejection of all crude-by-rail facilities in the Northwest, and assurances that Tesoro refineries in Anacortes, Bellingham and Tacoma will operate in compliance with the Clean Air Act. The EPA at one time charged Tesoro with violating the Clean Air Act no fewer than 4,000 times at a single refinery in North Dakota. Last year, the company and the EPA reached a $1.1 million settlement agreement over claims of widespread violations at other refineries, including Anacortes. A research group at the University of Massachusetts Amherst lists the company is among the top 100 toxic polluters nationwide.

The shipment of Bakken crude via rail has become increasingly controversial after seven derailments since July of last year. Five of the incidents involved dangerous fires. The last straw for Adam Gaya with Rising Tide Seattle was last week's oil train derailment in Seattle. No oil was released. But, says Gaya, “That train was less than two miles from my house. We have an out-of-control fossil fuel industry that is going off the tracks taking our planet to catastrophic climate change.”

Annette Klapstein, who joined Gaya and Jan Woodruff of Anacortes in the protest, said, “One mishap and we're going to have 100,000 people dead. It's an accident waiting to happen, a catastrophe waiting to happen. It's not if, it's when, as long as they keep running these things.”

Tesoro spokesperson Matthew Gille said via email that after the company became aware of “individuals trespassing at its rail unloading facility in Anacortes, WA, we worked with law enforcement to reach a safe resolution.

"Our first concern is the protection of our employees and the safety of our neighbors and the individuals involved. Therefore, we take this type of incident very seriously. We do not anticipate any impact upon our ability to fulfill supply commitments as a result of this incident.”

During the four-hour standoff, sheriff deputies from Skagit County repeatedly asked the three and their supporters to leave the area. Tesoro security vehicles also kept vigil as did several men in plain clothes. 

Despite repeated requests by county sheriffs to leave the area and get off the train tracks as well as the suggestion that the protestors negotiate directly with Tesoro via phone — a number provided by a sheriff's deputy — the protestors held their ground until deputies gave the group an ultimatum during the fourth hour of the action: “Leave the tracks or face arrest.” Those who had supported the action with encouragement, food and song then got off the tracks and the adjacent road. The three who'd locked themselves to barrels of concrete unlocked themselves.

The three cited for trespass were released within several hours from a county courthouse in Mount Vernon. After that, said spokesperson, Emily Johnston, they went to a pub to declare victory for “making a strong statement about oil train shipments in Washington state.”

Protester Woodruff said Tesoro's environmental pollution was one of her main concerns. “Skagit County has the third highest rate of cancer in the state and a 41 percent higher rate of bladder cancer,” she said. Woodruff's mother died of bladder cancer and lived in Anacortes for most of her life. Shellfish and fish are so contaminated with carcinogens, she added, that those with high consumption rates, like tribes, are also at high risk. 

Klapstein said, “While this kind of resistance may seem extreme, these are extreme times and the resistance to this craziness won't stop with us.”

A fast-growing Fortune 100 company, Tesoro has announced plans to build and operate a massive shipping facility on the Columbia River. The Vancouver Energy Distribution Terminal would handle up to 360,000 barrels of crude per day, according to a Sightline Institute report, transferring petroleum from mile-long trains onto oil tankers and other vessels that would ship the oil to refineries in the United States and, possibly, overseas. The exports are currently forbidden under U.S. law, but Congress is under intense industry lobbying to lift the ban.

Railroads and the oil industry say that Bakken field oil is no more dangerous than other oil and that they are taking major steps to improve the safety of tank cars. They say their current operations are conducted safely.

Earlier this month the Washington State Firefighters called on Gov. Jay Inslee to halt oil train traffic until a “determination that this crude by rail can be moved safely through our cities and rural areas.” In January the National Transportation Safety Board issued an unprecedented call for tougher standards recommending that oil trains avoid populated and sensitive areas. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.