As the number of trains carrying Bakken crude oil through Skagit County has grown, so has concern over rail safety and potential environmental disasters.
Emergency responders and area officials want to better protect communities along the rail lines, and activists have made their views known, some comparing the cargo to weapons of mass destruction.
Washington has been home to oil refineries since the 1950s, but it’s been just three years since the first oil trains rolled, without fanfare, along the tracks.
A change in the availability of crude oil has led to a change in the way some oil is delivered. Rail is the fastest, cheapest way to move it.
Nineteen oil trains enter the state each week, many of them headed to some of the five refineries in the Puget Sound region, according to the Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study the state Department of Ecology released on March 1.
If all pending oil import plans are approved, that number could skyrocket to 137.
Fuel to the fire
Concern about trains coming through Western Washington started a few years ago with the possibility that long coal trains could start rolling through to a proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham. It would mean 18 more trains would pass through Skagit County each day.
Angst over those coal trains was enough to raise a groundswell of public opposition from concerned citizens and environmental groups. Their opportunity to be heard came when the state asked the public what impacts needed to be studied before approving the terminal.
With that issue still pending, the oil trains took over the spotlight.
Several things happened: To start, Bakken crude gained popularity as a cheaper oil source.
Shell Puget Sound Refinery, like other refineries in the region, needed a permit to build an unloading facility to accept the rail shipments. But this time the community had an eye on the rail lines when Shell’s permit application opened the issue to public scrutiny.
In summer 2013, a derailment in Quebec, Canada, caused 47 deaths, one of the worst rail accidents in North America. More derailments have followed.
“Things started to blow up, and that changed things,” Anacortes resident and Protect Skagit member Ginny Wolff said. “They’re so dangerous it’s hard to even justify one of them coming through. I think that’s what ignited the community concern.”
Shell’s plan to bring in trains was a business decision to stay competitive. Shell has said it does not believe it should be held to a different standard than the crude-by-rail projects of other refineries in the area, including Tesoro right next door.
“Tesoro just slid through before anyone was aware, but after Lac-Mégantic (Quebec derailment) killed 47 people, we kind of went, ‘Oh, I guess that’s a problem,’” Anacortes resident Jan Woodruff said.
Woodruff thinks the potential dangers of carrying oil by train infringe on the public’s right to life and welfare.
“They are bombs … I refer to it as industrial homicide,” she said.
Activists, emergency responders and officials at various levels of government want tighter regulations and stronger safety measures.
Burlington, for example, has 17 railroad crossings within its 4 1/2-mile long town.
The city is looking at options, such as partnering with BNSF Railway for the possibility of adding an overpass, Mayor Steve Sexton said.
“We need to recognize that those places, those oil trains end up providing a lot of good jobs,” he said. “That doesn’t give them carte blanche to do whatever they want.”
Yet a partnership with a cooperative railroad might be the only option because few people have any real power to effect change.
Force of the law
Local and even state governments can’t control what comes through on the rails or how often. They also can’t force the railroad to pay for infrastructure improvements even when the trains significantly affect traffic.
“Federal law largely pre-empts what local governments can do,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.
Federal Railroad Administration Public Affairs Specialist Michael Booth said the same.
“State and local governments may have a role, but primarily safety regulations are done at the federal level,” he said.
Getting enough of the 535 members of Congress to agree on changing those laws is no simple task. In addition to safety and environmental concerns, there are matters of interstate commerce and impacts on the economy.
U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., noted that Skagit County residents have been active in expressing their concerns.
“The big power that local communities have is in terms of their voice,” she said.
Larsen said it’s important that smaller communities speak up, not only to their elected officials, but to regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration.
He said he expects the U.S. Department of Transportation will come out with a full slate of new safety rules by the end of the legislative session.
Earlier this year, the agency mandated that railroads must tell first responders about the number of cars on their trains, and it released an emergency order requiring trains hauling crude oil to slow down while passing through urban areas.
Soon, Larsen will introduce legislation that would improve rail crossings and move some crossings by way of overpasses or underpasses. He is also working on requiring comprehensive spill-response plans for all trains.
Her proposed Crude-By-Rail Safety Act of 2015 would require railroads to file documents on the contents of tank cars.
When Cantwell visited Skagit County recently to talk with local leaders about their concerns, she noted that the county needs a unique response plan for potential oil train accidents due to the proximity of its cities to train tracks.
Larsen has also discussed the issues with local leaders.
“First responders have reported to me that they don’t know enough about what’s going through their town,” Larsen said. “That’s why, when there’s a rule-making process going on like there is now, I think it’s important these communities speak up.”
Residents and local leaders are speaking up.
The Mount Vernon and Anacortes city councils have passed resolutions asking for increased safety standards and increased transparency from the oil and rail industries. The Mount Vernon School Board did the same, adding its voice Wednesday.
In some cases, local groups are fighting back.
A county hearing examiner recently decided that in light of recent train accidents, a full environmental impact statement will be needed before Shell can get the OK to build its unloading facility. Shell fired back by suing the county, arguing such decisions would have to be made at the federal level.
Soon after, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community sued BNSF over what it says is unauthorized train traffic over tribal land, despite an agreement the railroad made years ago with the tribe and U.S. government.
There’s been activity at the state level, as well.
Ecology’s oil transportation study gave a strong backing for inland oil spill response planning, according to Ecology spokeswoman Lisa Copeland and David Byers, who oversees the agency’s spills program.
“It confirmed what we already knew, which is that we need to make some changes due to the transportation of crude-by-rail,” Copeland said. “We didn’t have any oil trains prior to 2012 and our plans to respond to oil spills were really defined for oil pipelines and vessels. We need to make sure we’re as prepared for the inland parts of our state.”
Byers said the study also provided solid recommendations for the state Legislature.
On Friday, at the end of the regular legislative session, state lawmakers passed a measure aimed at making oil-by-rail shipments safer.
The measure, which goes to the governor before becoming law, extends a barrel tax on boat-transported oil to railroads to help pay for oil spill response. It also requires railroads to provide notice to first responders of the type and volume of oil shipped weekly.
But it doesn’t offer marine protections that environmental groups wanted to protect Puget Sound.
While in recent years the Department of Transportation has addressed pieces of the hazardous train cargo issue like tank car design, speed limits and the classification of crude oil, the bits and pieces aren’t shaping up to do enough, activist Wolff said.
“They are tweaks is what they are,” she said. “There is no magic bullet that is going to make (oil trains) safe.”
All of the moving parts of oil train regulation make the issue hard to keep up with, Wolff said. But the swell of activity signals to her that the risks involved with oil trains passing through Skagit County are real.
“Knowing that all of that (regulation) is happening, what that’s telling me is we’re at risk,” Wolff said. “There are risks to communities like ours. We’ve got schools, county administration buildings that are within half a mile from the tracks.”
‘On the same track’
While they hope for change, local officials are doing what they can to protect their communities.
Many emergency response departments have participated in training that is specific to oil train derailments and have sought additional equipment to aid in oil spill response.
The Mount Vernon Fire Department acquired a 660-gallon foam trailer unit to help fight oil-based fires, has sent its firefighters to special training programs in Colorado and has held a series of live training exercises. BNSF Railway, which operates the trains, has helped pay for that training.
Mount Vernon Fire Chief Roy Hari said he supports Cantwell’s plan to get resources into the hands of firefighters along the rail lines.
“I just think that the fact that our governments as a whole, jointly and collectively, are all looking for a solution to the problem is helpful. We’re all on the same track. We’re all looking for a similar solution to something that was put in our front yard through no doing of our own,” Hari said. “This oil going through these cities … it’s the potential (disaster) that we’re all trying to fix.”
Skagit County Department of Emergency Management Division Manager Mark Anderson recently attended an event in Tacoma where the chief of a fire department in Maine showed video of the emergency response to the 2013 oil train explosion in Quebec.
“Our goal is to learn as much as we can about them, seek (more emergency response support) from the railroads like Cantwell’s bill asks for, and keep our responders as best prepared as we can,” Anderson said. “It’s about awareness and keeping the heat on the railroads to improve safety.”
—Reporter Kera Wanielista contributed to this report.