Assessing oil train hazards, city emergency officials call for tunnel upgrades

Councilmember Mike O'Brien says BNSF Railway Co. needs to do more to guarantee safe passage of the flammable cargo through Seattle.
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Oil tanker cars derailed on tracks in Seattle's Interbay area.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien says BNSF Railway Co. needs to do more to guarantee safe passage of the flammable cargo through Seattle.

City emergency response officials are recommending that BNSF Railway Co. make safety upgrades inside the mile-long rail tunnel running underneath downtown Seattle, which serves as a major conduit for northbound trainloads of flammable petroleum crude oil.

In a report that will be presented at a City Council meeting on Tuesday night, officials from the fire department and office of emergency management said that BNSF could immediately improve the safety of crude-by-rail shipments passing through Seattle by installing fire suppression, radio communication and permanent ventilation systems in the Great Northern Tunnel.

The report also says that the fire department needs more funding for equipment and training in order to prepare for an accident involving tank cars of petroleum crude oil.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien spearheaded the Council resolution that called for the report. After seeing the findings, he has become more concerned about the oil shipments and believes BNSF needs to do more to ensure safety.

"Frankly, I'm frustrated and disappointed about the lack of urgency I see on their part," he said. O'Brien added: "The oil companies and the railroad companies are making a lot of money of this and shifting the costs to communities like Seattle, and it's just not acceptable."

Asked by email if the company has committed to making the tunnel upgrades, spokesperson Courtney Wallace would only say that the recommendations were under review. She later added that BNSF is working to connect its communication system in the tunnel with a system the fire department uses and that the company is also making plans to provide mobile fan units at both tunnel-ends.

Built in 1904, the southern portal of the Great Northern Tunnel is located at Fourth Avenue South and South Washington Street. The northern portal is situated northwest of Pike Place Market, near Alaskan Way.

O'Brien said that he has heard that if there were a fire in the tunnel, firefighters "would not go inside to fight it because it would be too dangerous to put their people at risk."

Such an incident is not without precedent. A CSX freight train carrying a flammable liquid similar to paint thinner derailed and caught fire in Baltimore's Howard Street Tunnel in 2001. The blaze burned out of control for 24 hours and temperatures inside the tunnel reached approximately 1,500-degrees, according to a U.S. Fire Administration Report.

While the railroad has not committed to making all of the recommended safety upgrades, Wallace noted that BNSF no longer allows trains carrying hazardous cargo to pass through the tunnel at the same time as passenger trains.

Without offering specifics, she also pointed to investments the railroad was making in Washington, which are geared toward safety. She said BNSF is spending $235 million in the state this year on maintenance, expansions, technology and equipment.

"We continually look at ways to improve our safety record, which includes a 99.97 percent delivery rate for all hazardous materials, including crude oil," Wallace said.

Seattle firefighters are eligible for a BNSF-funded program that sends first responders to a training course in Pueblo, Colo., specifically focused on oil train emergencies. Fire department spokesperson Kyle Moore said eight of the department's HazMat technicians will attend the training this fall.

BNSF has also offered to station a trailer at the Great Northern Tunnel's southern end, which could be used to spray firefighting foam on an oil fire. The fire department has acknowledged in recent months that there are limits to what they could achieve battling a large crude oil fire with the amount of foam and foam spraying equipment they have on hand.

Wallace said that BNSF would like to enter into an agreement with the city that would allow the fire department to use the foam trailer not just for rail accidents but for other fire emergencies as well.

As of June, BNSF was regularly sending between eight and 13 trainloads of crude oil through King County each week, based on counts the company submitted earlier this year to the Washington State Military Department Emergency Management Division.

In the state's northwest corner, BNSF currently delivers oil to a Tesoro Corp. refinery in Anacortes and BP's Cherry Point facility near Blaine, north of Bellingham. Phillips 66 plans to begin accepting oil trains at a plant in Ferndale later this year.

According to fire department emails obtained through a public records request, BNSF informed the department earlier this year that the average daily number of trains carrying oil through the city will likely increase to between three and four a day over the next few years.

Trains transporting oil through Washington are typically about 100 cars long. Each carries approximately 4 million gallons of crude, most of which originates in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields and is considered highly flammable. As rail shipments of crude oil increased in recent years, there have been several fiery accidents, including one that claimed 47 lives in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic last year.

Seattle also had a recent close call. In July, three tank cars carrying Bakken crude derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood, but they did not breach or catch fire.

Another risk factor the new report notes, are landslide prone slopes along the city's rail lines. Some sections of track that run through these areas are less than 100 feet from the Puget Sound.

Between the early 1900s and 2003, there were at least 127 landslides along the stretch of train tracks that runs from the Lake Washington Ship Canal to the northern city limit, according to data compiled by the city's office of emergency management.

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A map shows the 127 landslides that have occurred between the early 1900s and 2003 along
a busy rail line in northern Seattle. City Office of Emergency Management

The severity of these slides varied. But during the past 20 years, landslides have knocked at least two freight trains off the rails north of Seattle, in Snohomish County. One slide in 2012 near Everett happened to be captured on video (below). Another in 1997, near the town of Woodway, pushed five railcars into the Sound.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is currently working with BNSF and other rail operators on projects to prevent landslides and limit slide damage along a 10-mile segment of tracks between North Seattle and Everett.

The report the office of emergency management and fire department officials will present to the council on Tuesday uses stark terms to describe the ramifications of a bad train wreck involving tank cars full of crude oil.

"An oil train accident that results in fire, explosion and/or spill would be a catastrophe for our community in terms of risk to life, property and environment," the report says, "as well as risk to first responders and long-term economic consequences."


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