Seattle steps up complaints about oil trains

Crosscut archive image.

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

Almost a year to the day after a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train carrying crude oil from North Dakota derailed under the Magnolia Bridge, Councilmember Mike O’Brien and the mayor’s office today introduced a resolution calling for tighter restrictions on the transport of oil through Seattle. The Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee unanimously passed the resolution, sending it to a full council vote next Monday.

Seattle does not have the governmental teeth to impose its own regulations on trains passing through downtown. So, Tuesday’s legislation can only make recommendations and encourage the Washington Legislature and the federal government to act. Councilmember Nick Licata, while supportive, called the resolution “a disappointing acknowledgement of how little authority we have.”

On average, 19 oil trains pass through Washington state every week. About two-thirds of those, carrying about 3 million gallons a day, go through Seattle on their way to Northwest ports and refineries.

According to the state Department of Ecology, crude oil, once predominantly shipped by tanker from Alaska and other sources, has been increasingly moved by rail. With increased production in North Dakota and Montana, the number of oil cars through Seattle has been on the rise. According to Steve Lee of Mayor Ed Murray’s Office of Policy and Innovation, that number will only continue to trend upward, potentially jumping as high as 17 a day.

Although last year's July 24 Seattle derailment didn’t result in spills, it prickled some hairs. Bakken oil, the type most likely to go through Seattle, is particularly volatile. There has been a continuing string of oil trains accidents since a July 2013 disaster in Quebec killed 47 people.

The three highest danger areas in Seattle are considered to be the neighborhoods near the stadiums; underneath the downtown in the Great Northern Tunnel; and along the water near Myrtle Edwards Park. All three are in well-populated areas with restricted access for emergency crews.

BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace took issue with the accusation that the rail company is negligent, pointing to more than $10 billion in rail and car improvements over the last two years.  "We have as much to lose as anyone," she said. She also made the point, "We don't get to decide what we carry. But we can do it as safely as possible." BNSF now places a car outside the Great Northern tunnel equipped with a fan and oil-fire fighting foam. It installed an antenna system in the tunnel to allow for communication. It agreed to not travel through the tunnel at the same time as passenger trains. And the company pays for training firefighters to fight chemical fires.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently set a speed limit in urban areas for trains with hazardous materials. But it has not followed recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board that oil trains be rerouted around population centers.

For O’Brien, too, the existing measures don’t go far enough. His resolution would request more transparency from the railroads regarding what, exactly, the worst-case scenario could be and the potential damage. It calls for greater regulation of rail crossings and endorses the Crude by Rail Federal Safety Act sponsored by Washington’s Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, which would put new limits on the volatility of oil carried in tank cars and require worst-case disaster planning.

Most notably, the resolution calls on the federal government to mandate that rail companies have an insurance coverage that would pay for all damage resulting from an oil train crash. “I want [BNSF] to pay for the cost of an incident,” O’Brien told Crosscut last March. Once BNSF does the numbers, said O’Brien, “the cost of crude oil won’t pencil out versus solar or wind.”

As an add-on, the resolution singles out Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway controls BNSF, for criticism. “They’re making significant profit on this and we as the city are bearing the brunt of it,” said O’Brien. “That’s unfair and unjust.”

Update July 22, 1:15 PM: This story has been updated with comment from BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.