Stopping oil trains in their tracks – Ballard residents consider ways to eliminate risks
Could oil trains moving through Seattle deliver a major disaster – affecting both human life and the natural environment?
City leaders gathered in Ballard at the Sunset Hill Community Club on Wednesday evening, Sept. 20 to discuss the potential dangers associated with the rail transportation of crude oil through the city.
Sunset Hill Community Association board president Sharon Giampietro said oil trains are of particular concern in Ballard.
“The tracks aren’t very far from us,” she said. “We are in the blast zone,” board member Pam McCarthy added, “And the safety record of oil trains is not good.”
Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien attended the meeting – and distributed a copy of a letter he sent to Warren Buffett about an oil train derailment that ran off the tracks under the Magnolia Bridge in 2014.
In the note, O’Brien said that luckily there were no spills and no threats to public safety when three cars were derailed.
That was not the case in Lac-Mégantic Quebec, when a train derailed in 2013.
The letter noted that the train was carrying the same Bakken crude-oil, which “vaporized 47 people instantly. In addition to the terrible loss of life, liabilities totaled upwards of $2 billion and forced the railroad company into bankruptcy.”
“Oil trains are ticking time bombs on rails,” O’Brien continued in his letter.
The problem is, he explained to the crowd in Sunset Hill, was that the specific type of crude oil on the trains is highly volatile.
Reaching out to private companies like Buffet may be one way to promote a safe transportation methods, O’Brien explained.
“This is an extremely important issue, and it’s been incredibly frustrating to work on,” he said. “That isn’t an excuse to walk away from it, but it is a reason to re-engage.”
O’Brien said that 62,000 barrels of oil a day come through Seattle – destined for refineries in Tacoma, Anacortes and Ferndale.
He added that this movement of oil, mostly from the Midwest, to these refineries only started in the past five years.
“With new technology, they figured out a way to make it very profitable to pull oil from there,” he said. O’Brien noted that t moving crude oil by rail is a relatively new.
While regulations have been put in place to require safer train cars to transport the oil, O’Brien said the oil industry has fought the improvements “at every turn.”
“Could we make an oil tank car that’s extremely safe? I think we can,” he said. “The problem is it’s expensive.”
It’s a price that O’Brien does not believe the oil or rail companies are willing to pay.
Other options to increase safety – including slower speeds and increased numbers of safety inspectors – have been met with equal resistance, he added.
“There’s a lot of money to be made by pulling the oil out of the ground as fast as they can,” he said. “They could do a lot to make it safe. They could refine oil in North Dakota to make it less volatile. All of those steps reduce the profitability.”
O’Brien also would like the oil trains to carry liability insurance. In Quebec, he said, the insurance companies responsible for the damage declared bankruptcy and the taxpayers had to foot the bill.
“They’re shifting the responsibility to us,” he said.
O’Brien was also particularly concerned about the routes rail uses through Seattle, when it comes to the transportation of oil.
He explained that in Ballard, for example, the rail runs along the water on a high bluff – making it difficult to fight fires and also threatening Puget Sound if anything spills.
Seattle Fire Department assistant chief A.D. Vickery elaborated on this risk. He has been preparing for potential disasters related to the oil trains and remains worried about the possibility.
He explained that in the case of a waterside train fire, his crews would have to fight the blaze from a boat. “It’s very limited based on the tides,” he said.
Still, the department has equipped five boats and two trucks with environmentally friendly foam in case of an emergency.
The train also passes through densely populated areas of downtown, near the stadiums and through the southern industrial areas of Seattle. “You have to let it (oil fires) burn out,” Vickery said. “If I were in Eastern Washington, that would be viable.”
The train also passes through a 100-year old tunnel that Vickery said is not prepared for disastrous scenarios.
The assistant fire chief was also concerned about the lack of staff on the train.
“There is one engineer on that train,” he said. “It’s a mile long with only one person running it.”
This makes it difficult to uncouple in the case of a spill. O’Brien said federal laws limit how much a city can regulate rails.
“One thing we can do is lobby,” he said. “Ultimately, the federal government should be the one to act. These explosions of railcars are happening across the country. You would hope that would be enough political pressure to change our laws.”
Barnaby Dow, governmental affairs for King County, also spoke at the Sunset Hill meeting. He explained that preparing for an emergency is his job – and that the county has been working on the scenario of an oil train fire. “We have co-sponsored several training exercises,” he said.
One was held at Golden Gardens – and one downtown near the stadiums. He urges residents to prepare their neighborhoods in the event of a disaster.
Nathan Aberg, apprentice conservation organizer with the Sierra Club, spoke to meeting attendees about fossil fuel projects in the state and ways they could become involved in fighting against building additional pipelines.
O’Brien closed the meeting by committing to work more on this issue in his office at city council.
For more information about Sunset Hill Community Association, visit http://sunsethillcommunity.org.