Rise in oil trains raises red flags to some
EVERETT — A recent paradigm shift in Pacific Northwest oil refining has created a demand for crude oil by rail, and there are more oil trains than ever.
A group called the Snohomish County Train Watch recently assessed how many trains pass through here.
In Everett, oil trains come through the center of downtown on mostly below-grade tunnels, a legacy of the city’s founders’ desire to have the tracks run through the City of Smokestacks.
To Train Watch organizer Dean Smith, 71, this is a big problem.
He comes from a stance that the trains are too risky in derailments so they shouldn’t run close to cities.
“You might as well write ‘bomb’ on them,” is how Smith described the oil cars at the train watch meeting.
Oil train loads are generally safe, according to expert analysts, but when something goes wrong the results can be catastrophic.
Recent high-profile train accidents such as an April 30 derailment in Lynchburg, Va. where oil went into the James River raised concerns. The poster child for these accidents among activists is last July’s fluke accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada where an unattended train rolled back into town and derailed. It exploded, killing 47 people.
How many are there?
The group counted 16 loaded oil trains over the span of April 21 to 27 from vantage points in Everett, Edmonds and the Lowell-Snohomish train crossing. That’s an average of about 2.28 oil trains a day.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe has similar numbers.
Burlington spokesman Gus Melonas said last week the company estimates there usually are 1.5 to 2 fully loaded oil trains coming inbound to Washington refineries each week. The actual volumes vary by demand, he said.
The long, loaded, 100-plus car trains often carry more than 70,000 gallons of oil.
The influx of oil trains stems from the rise of the Bakken Oilfields in North Dakota, a fresh source for crude first tapped in 2000. Experts optimistically claim the fields may yield 20 billion gallons; so far 1 billion has been extracted.
More trains started come to Northwest refineries. It was estimated there were three trains a week in 2012, to nine a week last year. The estimates are based on expansions at refineries such as the Tesoro plant in Anacortes and BP's plant north of Bellingham.
The Train Watch is the first to produce independent data.
Smith calls the trainspotting efforts a “good check on (the railroads’) reports” to the state on oil train numbers to ensure there are not discrepancies. If the report has errors, the railroad can be penalized.
The reports are a new mandate the U.S. Department of Transportation brought down May 7. Burlington, the largest carrier, relented and gave state agencies the reports but demanded states gag the information from the public.
Hurling ideas at Olympia
Environmentalists want a moratorium on oil trains, but acknowledge the state can’t influence federally protected railroads.
Burlington is mandated by federal railroad regulations to carry whatever shippers ask it to carry as long as the cars meet federal safety standards.
So instead, the environmentalists’ approach is to have the state limit the oil refining marketplace.
They want Gov. Jay Inslee to use state powers to block permits that allow refineries to expand their oil-by-train receiving capacities.
By artificially limiting the refineries, anti-oil train activists argue this stops more oil trains from coming — sort of a reversal to the mantra, “if you build it, they will come.”
Environmental group Seattle 350 member Ahmed Gaya said Inslee hasn’t addressed their idea. He said the governor instead diverts the topic when asked point-blank on it.
Inslee did, though, direct state agencies last week to do a multi-pronged study on the risks of oil trains. The study findings are due Oct. 1.
The same environmental groups want people to transition completely off fossil fuels.
The old-design tank cars commonly used in oil transport are a target for opponents. The design dates to the 1960s.
The U.S. DOT in its May 7 communique asked railroads to voluntarily upgrade their rolling stock to make the older DOT-111 tank car obsolete, but the polite request is hard to accomplish quickly.
There are 78,000 old-style tank cars carrying flammable liquids in use today, according to industry group Association of American Railroads. The cars are generally owned by shippers, not railroads.
Burlington spokesman Melonas said the company owns zero tank cars for oil shipping.
Burlington, on its own accord, is buying 5,000 next-generation tank cars to add to its rolling stock, but Melonas said the company has no timetable to introduce them.
“We are going beyond and making this a commitment,” Melonas said.
The company hopes shippers will upgrade to new-design cars, but can’t force the old ones off BNSF trains.
The city of Everett is prepared if the worst happens, the city’s emergency management director said.
“An oil train is one of the many hazards a railroad presents to us,” Dave DeHaan said. The city trained long ago for any form of hazardous liquids.
“The reality is there’s a lot worse chemicals out there” carried on trains, such as acetone, DeHaan said.
Everett has had one notable derailment in September 1979 when one tank car of Liquid Propane was among eight derailed cars one block east of the Broadway Bridge and the under-downtown tunnel.
Downtown was evacuated by 50 blocks for approximately 16 hours, Herald archives state. No injuries were reported in the late night incident.
Train Watch meetings
The Snohomish County Train Watch plans to meet regularly. A meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 24 at the downtown Everett library.