How Oil Trains Through Downtown Seattle Could Put us at Risk

With oil trains already rolling down the tracks, Seattle, and Washington state, consider the risks
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
The rattle and whistle of trains have long provided a soundtrack for beachgoers at Golden Gardens, salmon spotters at the Ballard locks and sports fans headed to a game in SoDo. So it’s not surprising that so few bother to watch the trains anymore. But a closer look could reveal something new—about a dozen times a week, engines haul 100 or more cylindrical tank cars through Seattle. Each car is marked with a 1267 placard, the hazmat code for crude oil. Not just any old crude. These trains carry Bakken, a highly flammable product extracted primarily in North Dakota and Montana, and each tank car “holds the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a widebody jetliner,” as described in The Wall Street Journal. 
The first train solely dedicated to oil arrived in our state in September 2012. In late July of this year, three such tank cars of a 102-car train carrying approximately 28,000 gallons of crude oil each, derailed under the Magnolia Bridge. No oil spilled, and no one was injured. But many feel the derailment was a wake-up call about the risks posed by oil trains traveling into our state

The rattle and whistle of trains have long provided a soundtrack for beachgoers at Golden Gardens, salmon spotters at the Ballard locks and sports fans headed to a game in SoDo. So it’s not surprising that so few bother to watch the trains anymore. But a closer look could reveal something new—about a dozen times a week, engines haul 100 or more cylindrical tank cars through Seattle. Each car is marked with a 1267 placard, the hazmat code for crude oil. Not just any old crude. These trains carry Bakken, a highly flammable product extracted primarily in North Dakota and Montana, and each tank car “holds the energy equivalent of two million sticks of dynamite or the fuel in a widebody jetliner,” as described in The Wall Street Journal.

The first train solely dedicated to oil arrived in our state in September 2012. In late July of this year, three such tank cars of a 102-car train carrying approximately 28,000 gallons of crude oil each, derailed under the Magnolia Bridge. No oil spilled, and no one was injured. But many feel the derailment was a wake-up call about the risks posed by oil trains traveling into our state.

Weeks before the derailment, the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters passed a resolution asking Governor Jay Inslee to “do all in his power” to halt the movement of crude oil trains through the state. The council requested a moratorium until the completion of a study commissioned by the governor, due on March 1, 2015, to determine “if it is possible to safely move this crude oil through our cities and rural areas.”

Then came the derailment. “We were lucky,” said Rebecca Ponzio of the Seattle-based Washington Environmental Council, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. “There was no oil spill; there was no explosion; people did not get hurt. But, fundamentally, those are the risks to transporting oil by rail.”

Reasons for concern listed in the firefighters’ resolution include the increase in the number of explosions, spills and deaths in the previous year in North America due to tanker derailments; the fact that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has determined that Bakken crude may be more flammable than traditional crude oil; the fact that the majority of Bakken transported in Washington is currently carried in railcars known as DOT-111s, which were not designed to carry crude oil and have been known for decades to puncture upon impact; and plans to greatly increase the number of oil trains in Washington. According to Senator Patty Murray’s office, 17 million barrels of crude oil were shipped in Washington in 2013. In 2014, shipments are expected to triple to 55 million barrels.

Harm to people is one worry; harm to the environment, particularly local waters, is another. Railroad tracks generally follow shorelines when possible—where land is flattest. “This means any spill has a high likelihood of contaminating our waterways,” says Chris Wilke of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a Seattle nonprofit devoted to protecting and preserving Puget Sound waters. “The size of these trains and the proximity to water pretty much guarantee that any spill along a rail route will become an environmental disaster involving tens if not hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil.”

Railroads in Washington state generally have a good safety record for handling hazardous materials, such as propane and chlorine. Spills of other hazardous materials by railroads in Washington state have been rare in recent years—usually numbering one or fewer per year, according to the Department of Ecology Incident Database. But the increasing volumes of oil are unprecedented. Already, about 11 loaded oil trains, and 1,100 tank cars, pass through Seattle per week, and many more through the state. It’s hard to know the exact quantity and routes of oil train traffic, however, because until recently, rail companies have largely been exempt from such disclosure. In July, an emergency order from the U.S. DOT required railroad carriers operating trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of Bakken crude on a single train to provide information regarding the estimated volumes and frequencies of the train traffic. (The Seattle City Council and other municipalities have passed resolutions asking for more complete disclosure.)

“This is a good first step,” Ponzio says, “but a lot of trains are carrying less than that.” In addition, the emergency order does not apply to tar sands oil, which is also being carried through the state by rail. “The Washington Environmental Council believes that providing public disclosure of this information is extremely important in order to inform public policy decisions.”

For anyone interested in oil-by-rail transport, it’s been a steep learning curve. Oil transport by rail has long been rare in our country. This dramatic new surge is a result of new access to crude oil from the development of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Few pipelines serve Bakken fields, so companies are turning to rail to move oil to refineries and terminals. More crude oil traveled on trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the past 30 years combined.

Among recent derailments, the most notable to date was the July 2013 explosion and spill in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, just across the border from the U.S., in which a train carrying Bakken to a Canada refinery, left unattended, derailed and caught fire. The accident killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings. About a dozen other significant oil-by-rail spills, without loss of life, have occurred in the past 18 months, including a 400,000-gallon spill in Casselton, North Dakota, that required the evacuation of 2,000 people, and a 17-car derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia, that sent tank cars and oil into the James River and led to the evacuation of a 20-block area. In total, more than 1.1 million gallons of crude oil were released from railcars in 2013. (None of that was in Washington state.)

In July, the U.S. DOT announced a proposal to improve some safety rules for all trains carrying hazardous liquids, including tighter speed limits for the trains and the requirement that rail companies retire or upgrade DOT-111s by 2017.

But many, like the firefighters, say the older tank cars should go now. Eric de Place of Sightline Institute, a Seattle nonprofit think tank, says further that we should halt the movement of oil by rail through our state while we assess the danger. “Until we can understand the risk and manage it…we need to at least hit pause,” he says. Puget Soundkeeper’s Wilke says the work to assess and improve our response capability should be paid for by the oil industry, not the public. “They are creating this risk and profiting while the public accepts the dangers,” he says.

A bigger-picture issue is whether this increase in oil traffic in our state is moving us backward on climate policy. It’s a question that also dogs proposed plans by coal companies to ship coal through Washington to Pacific Northwest ports for export to Asia. Green-leaning Seattle has its own city climate action plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. Governor Inslee has a Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce. Are the people working to cut carbon emissions and slow climate change also down for bringing more fossil fuels into the state, potentially for export to Asia? “If we want to serve existing refineries, maybe there’s room for debate,” de Place says. “But we’re talking about pipeline-size transport, and I just think that’s insane.”

So far, the state has not indicated it will curb the trains, at least not before the completion of the governor’s study, led by the Washington State Department of Ecology. Lisa Copeland, communications manager for Ecology, says that study will help the state better understand where there are gaps in our preparedness for a derailment and/or spill. “Washington has a robust prevention and preparedness system that applies to oil tank vessels, pipelines and facilities such as refineries,” Copeland says. “Rail is exempt from these regulations; however, Ecology and other federal and state response partner agencies have been working with the rail industry in Washington toward improving their readiness for a spill.”

The study, which will also consider marine oil transportation, will analyze the risks to public health and safety and the environmental impacts associated with oil transport in our state. An interim report is due to the governor and state Legislature by December 1.