Oil train safety: A whole lot of worry among Washingtonians

Close to 1,000 people turn out to hearings in Olympia and Spokane, most of them asking for a halt to the rolling transport of oil across the state.
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Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay.

Close to 1,000 people turn out to hearings in Olympia and Spokane, most of them asking for a halt to the rolling transport of oil across the state.

The subject was oil train traffic, and most of a roughly 750-person crowd Thursday night opposed the increasing transportation of crude oil by rail across Washington.

And if more oil trains do surface, the crowd at an Olympia hearing on draft oil spill prevention and response plan wanted dramatically stricter rules that what the state plan proposes. 

"We must stop these trains and the tankers they feed," said Nathaniel Jones, mayor pro tempore of Olympia. Vancouver small business owner Don Orange, representing the Main Street Business Alliance, said oil trains are "great for Big Oil. It stinks for us."

"We shouldn't be moving this stuff through our populated area," Orange said.

The draft state report says, "There has been an unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013. The amount may reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end 2014 or during 2015."

Even that amount could increase with construction of proposed new rail facilities and the potential lifting of a federal ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the report says.

In 2013 and 2014, the United States had four oil train accidents that produced fires — one in North Dakota, one in West Virginia and two in New England. Closer to home, three 29,200-gallon oil cars on a slow-moving train derailed without any spills or fire beneath Seattle's Magnolia Bridge in July. Looming over this entire issue is a July 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people. Trains range from one oil car among numerous freight cars to ones with 100 oil cars or so. Consequently, a huge oil-car train could carry up to 29 million gallons of oil.

Nationally, the number of rail cars transporting crude oil grew from 9,500 in 2008 to 415,000 carloads in 2013. A typical tanker car holds 29,200 gallons. Washington's five refineries process roughly 24.3 million gallons of crude oil a day, and have the capacity of processing 26.5 million gallons daily.

All this worried Thursday's crowd as well as roughly 200 people at a similar hearing Tuesday in Spokane. By 8:30 p.m. 48 people testified in opposition to all oil trains or in favor of stricter state regulations than proposed. No one spoke in support of oil trains as of 8:30 p.m.

Thursday's public testimony called for no oil trains, with people citing fears about oil spills polluting Washington's waters and killing salmon runs, causing fires in populated areas and damaging local economies if any disaster occurs.

Cager Clabaugh, representing the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Worker union Local No. 4 in Vancouver, said that local unanimously opposed shipping crude oil across the state by rail, especially along the Columbia Gorge. "If a spill occurs (on the Columbia River), it wouldn't just put us out of work. It would put the whole river out of work."

Rail workers also expressed concerns through Mike Elliott, representing the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainsmen as well as SMART-TD, which represents conductors plus other workers — about 2,500 railroad employees. He said the danger of accidents is increasing due to experienced train operators being laid off and replaced by less-experienced people, train crews being trimmed, fatigue becoming a bigger factor among train operators and inadequate whistleblower protection for people who raise concerns.

Kent firefighter Geoff Simpson, representing the Washington State Council of Firefighters, said fire departments, the lead responders to an oil spill, have also been laying off people.

"There is no safe way to transport Bakken crude," he said. The Bakken oil fields in North Dakota have been a blossoming source of crude oil being shipped by train to Washington's refineries. Simpson said Washington needs to tell North Dakota to take steps to stabilize the Bakken crude oil to make it less volatile before sending it out of state. 

Simpson said, "It's only a matter of time before the next crude oil rail accident occurs in Washington."

In the Legislature's 2014 session, Democrats and Republicans introduced somewhat similar oil train emergency prevention and response bills, including requirements that oil companies and railroads provide advance information on each oil train to emergency agencies. But the two sides could not get past one major deadlock. The Democrats wanted to make the volumes and chemical compositions of the oil in each upcoming train available to the public. The Republicans were against that plan, arguing it would expose proprietary corporate secrets. 

A revised draft report is to go to Gov. Jay Inslee in December, with a final report due in March 2015. 

While Washington ponders its choices, North Dakota's Industrial Commission has been considering whether to impose new requirements for treating the Bakken Field oil, which is widely regarded as more volatile than most crude, to make it safer for transport. The Wall Street Journal has drawn unfavorable comparisons between North Dakota's safety requirements and the stricter ones of other states. Oil companies dominated a hearing last month in Bismarck, according to The Columbian, arguing that there is no need for additional safety measures.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8