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Amid train derailments and explosions across North America, Spokane leaders call for tighter restrictions on oil trains

click to enlarge An oil train running through Montana. - ROY LUCK
  • Roy Luck
  • An oil train running through Montana.

In a small, working-class Quebec town last summer, a train nearly a mile long carrying crude oil derailed in the middle of the night, spilling more than a million gallons of oil and exploding into a blaze that destroyed more than 30 buildings, including the public library, and killed 47 people. Near Casselton, North Dakota, in December, an oil train crash and explosion caused the town to evacuate. In Spokane, a similar spill could be above the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, into the Spokane River or over the heart of the city.

An overwhelming majority of transport by rail happens without incident, but when accidents happen, they can be devastating to communities. Amid recent high-profile accidents, increased production in North Dakota’s Bakken formation and oil sands projects in Alberta and at least 10 refineries and port terminals planned for or operating on the Oregon and Washington coasts, local leaders are worried this area could soon see a derailment of its own.

“It’s a matter of when,” says Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich. “We’re on rail lines just like all these other communities.”

BNSF, one of the region’s primary rail companies, doesn’t disclose many specifics about its operations in the area, but estimates that about one train carrying oil passes through Spokane each day. According to Sightline, a Seattle-based, sustainability-focused think tank, that could climb to as many as 22 per day (some full, others empty on their way back to the oil source) in coming years.

The Spokane City Council passed a resolution Monday night that, among other things, called on the state to require railroads to disclose information about routes and frequency of oil transport, asked state and federal agencies to include Spokane in any environmental studies about the impact of increased traffic, supported stronger federal regulations regarding the use of aging train cars and requested a city review of emergency plans in case of a derailment.

The move is non-binding — city councils can’t, of course, compel the state or federal government to do anything — but Council President Ben Stuckart called it a proactive step.

“People listen,” Stuckart said before Monday’s vote. “If we don’t want these unsafe trains coming here, we can be heard.”

Even some councilmembers who are skeptical of the environmental concerns surrounding coal train traffic through Spokane, like Mike Fagan and Steve Salvatori, say oil trains are an undeniable risk. The threat isn’t long-term like climate change, but one that could happen today. Fagan and Salvatori both pushed for Monday’s resolution to be limited to safety issues alone (not environmental ones), but supported the full resolution in the end.

At the heart of the safety issue is outdated rail car technology. A handful of derailments since 2006, including those in Quebec and North Dakota, involved DOT-111 cars. Those pill-shaped cars have thinner walls that are likely to rupture in the case of derailment, a flaw well-known by the National Transportation Safety Board, but not yet phased out by federal regulators.

Adding to the concern, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert in January saying that recent derailments and explosions “indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

Yet local communities remain in waiting for federal regulators to take any steps on those issues. For now, the most concrete work they can do is planning for the worst. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas says the company helps educate first responders on how to respond to accidents and spent $125 million on track improvements in Washington state last year. Spokane Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer says his department does regular drills to practice responding to hazardous material spills, fires and explosions, and is prepared for a potential derailment in the heart of Spokane.

Still, the state Department of Ecology sees more work to be done. The department is pushing for legislative support of $625,000 in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget that would go toward more emergency planning for inland areas like Spokane, which have historically seen less planning for oil spills than coastal areas. Those dollars would help communities across the state outline how emergency responders would react to a hazardous accident in their area, including an oil train derailment, says David Byers, the department’s response manager. Byers says states are able to require that private companies complete and test such plans for pipelines and ships, but don’t have the same authority over rail companies, making it crucial that towns do the planning themselves.

“We’re prepared for spills certainly along waterways and marine areas,” Byers says. But now that’s changing. “We’re seeing a transition from that risk picture that’s been with us for a long time to this additional risk [in] inland areas.” ♦

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