The oil trains and the cities: How safe?

By Martha Baskin
Crosscut archive image.

Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay last year.

By Martha Baskin

They gathered at dusk at the King Street Station with the words “No Exploding Oil Trains” projected on the station’s clock tower. Some held signs with four more words, “Not Under Our City.” The crowd wasn't certain if any 100-car oil trains would enter the tunnel beneath them on the underground route past the Pike Place Market. But after two more oil train explosions this month, one in Ontario and another in West Virginia, the people gathered there Tuesday felt the time was ripe for another protest.

“How many oil trains do we want to see passing under downtown Seattle?” 350 organizer, Carlo Voli, asked the crowd rhetorically. “None!” they shouted. How many do we want to see passing alongside the stadiums, through our neighborhoods, and along the shores of Puget Sound? The answer was always the same, “None!”

According to an Associated Press article published last weekend, a U.S. Department of Transportation study predicts that over the next decade, there will be an average of 10 derailments a year of trains hauling crude oil or ethanol. “They tell us this will be the norm,” said Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, addressing the crowd, “and we should just get used to it. Are we going to get used to it? No!"

"We have an old tunnel here that wasn't designed for trains carrying hazardous materials,” O’Brien added.

The state Department of Ecology estimates there are currently 19 oil trains a week traveling through the state with expectations that the number may rise to 59 a week by 2020. Protesters fear that could result in a threefold increase in derailments. “These trains go right under Seattle, right under the Pike Place Market,” said Emily Johnston, also with 350, “despite the fact that a year ago the National Transportation Safety Board ruled they shouldn't travel through populated or sensitive areas.”

In a blog post this week, Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, wrote that tank car standards under review at the White House "could be weakened by a vast new fleet of cars built to older and less-safe standards." He was referring to so-called CPC-1232 tank cars, which have been involved in several oil train derailments and fires, including the most recent in West Virginia. He said that, while proposed U.S. Department of Transportation rules would make a significant improvement over the current designs, the plans would mean that “another 36,000 will be built for crude oil service by the end of the year.” Barring “swift regulatory action,” he suggested, the nation's overall fleet of oil tank cars would remain dangerous.

The Great Northern Tunnel that runs beneath downtown Seattle was built in 1905. The double-tracked tunnel carries both passenger trains and freight. Whether the tunnel is safe when one track is loaded with 100 tank cars carrying an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil depends on who you ask.

BNSF spokesperson Gus Melonas says the nation's second largest rail freight carrier hasn't had a fatality in the region since 1981. That year ammonia was accidentally released by a conductor in what Melonas refers to as “a danger zone” in Vancouver.

When he was reached for this story, Melonas was on his way to visit his hometown in the Columbia Gorge. He said his father, who immigrated from Greece, helped build the railway in that part of the state. “Safety is our No. 1 priority. We've been in this business for over 160 years.”

“These recent incidents,” said Melonas referring to oil train explosions, “didn't happen on BNSF property. But the industry as a whole learns from these accidents.”

BNSF broke a record last year after spending over 6 billion in capital investments, says Melonas. Of that, $189 million is in track upgrades throughout the state, in particular mainline corridors between Olympia and Centralia, Everett and Canada, and others.

People can protest against oil trains as much as they want, says Melonas, but if you look at geographic factors involving the railroad, oil fields and markets, “we're in a perfect position to move this product that is being demanded by the public.

“People are complaining, yet they're driving vehicles and demanding this product that we move as a common carrier. We don't control what we haul; we control how we haul it.”

Pressed on whether he thinks Seattle's Great Northern Tunnel is safe, Melonas says the trains slow down to 10 mph before entering the tunnel. BNSF has invested in fans that can be placed at both ends of the tunnel for ventilation. They also invested in a trailer filled with chemical foam. The foam is designed to “smother product” and was recently placed in the tunnel area.

The Seattle Fire Department has its own perspective on the safety of the tunnel and the city if an oil derailment or explosion were to occur. “There's no department in the world that could deal with a scenario like Quebec or the most recent one in West Virginia," says Assistant Fire Chief A.D. Vickery. In July 2013, the explosion of a 72-car train carrying Bakken crude in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed 47. West Virginia brought no loss of life but the fire blast burned for over two days.

“We simply don't have the economic resources to add additional firefighters, specialized apparatus and a number of things that would be required to deal with a significant incident.” The tunnel, says Vickery, “was designed with no life-safety systems because they weren't hauling the volumes of the type of cargo they are now.

He adds that he's not convinced by the idea that just because something hasn't occurred, emergency officials can be confident it won't be big problem in the future.

Vickery appreciates that BNSF supplied a trailer filled with chemical foam, a vapor suppressant used for extinguishing flammable liquid fires. “But it requires continuous application and wouldn't be the initial thing you'd think about using. One trailer full of the foam isn't sufficient to put out an oil train fire. We'd need enough to continually apply it over a potential explosion,” he explains.

The state House and Senate are both considering legislation that would notify first responders when a train is coming down the tracks. “I don't disagree with that,” Vickery said. “My question is what am I going to do when it comes? Because there's no state support to beef up hazardous teams. All the money seems to be going to state inspectors to ensure that I have plans, for which there's no money to support.”

Back at the rally, Matt Krogh, director of Forest Ethics’ Extreme Oil Campaign, thanked the crowd coming out and for helping ensure what he calls “the victory in Skagit County.” This week, a Skagit County hearing examiner ruled that before Shell Oil could add a rail spur to its oil refinery in Anacortes, it needed to conduct an environmental impact statement. As a result, said Krogh, whose Forest Ethics was party to the Shell challenge, all cumulative impacts of oil traffic will now be identified: not just in Skagit County, but in King and Snohomish counties, along the Columbia River and in Spokane. Krogh told the crowd, “It's a remarkable piece of science, of regulatory work.”

One section of the ruling says, “The total impact of the entirety of the massive upsurge in shipments of crude along this route has not been analyzed. The risks that adding one more actor to this scene poses to the environment and to health and safety can only be appreciated after a cumulative analysis of the entire picture.”

Shell is expected to appeal the decision. In the interim it's likely the decision will be interpreted and scrutinized by players across the board: the governor, the Legislature, BNSF, counties and cities impacted by oil train traffic and, last but not least, the public.


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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.