MOUNT VERNON — They were nurses, teachers, waitresses, artists and students. Two were younger than 10 years old, and others were in their 70s.
A year has passed since a fiery explosion claimed the lives of 47 people in Quebec, but their story is far from forgotten. The tragic train derailment sparked a growing awareness of the booming oil-by-rail industry, and with it concern in communities across the nation, including Skagit County.
About 80 people convened at Skagit Station on Monday and walked across the BNSF Railway tracks that divide downtown.
They regrouped on the steps of the Skagit County Courthouse where they shared remembrances of those who died in the Lac-Mégantic derailment and urged the crowd to protest oil shipments that roll through local communities.
Gary Kanter and Greg Deer, who write and perform songs about social justice issues, performed tunes about fossil fuels, climate change and oil trains.
“Anybody who’s read anything about the little town in Quebec, you can’t help see the danger is inherent despite all of the assurances from big oil,” Kanter said.
Event participants carried signs of protest. Some read “no exploding oil trains,” and others targeted county commissioners by saying “don’t gamble with our lives.”
Speakers Carolyn Gastellum and Ginny Wolff raised safety concerns and encouraged community members to petition local officials to take preventative action against oil transport through Skagit County communities.
“What if?” Gastellum asked of an oil train accident. “What if, along our farmland or in Conway or in Mount Vernon where we’re standing now? … Why are we only talking about responding to oil train derailments instead of preventing them?”
State and federal governments have worked over the past year to improve emergency preparedness and response in communities the trains pass through. Among the actions is a federal requirement that railroads must report shipments of oil to first responders.
According to the latest disclosure from BNSF, the average number of oil trains that pass through the state each week falls between 18 and 9, the Associated Press reported Monday.
With several oil-by-rail projects proposed along the West Coast — including one at the Shell Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes — those numbers may grow.
In Skagit County, the proposed Shell refinery’s oil-by-rail expansion project has become a regional concern. The Shell project could bring six additional oil trains through the county each week.
“Any increase in the number of trains means an increased risk of a fiery derailment happening here,” Protect Skagit member and event organizer Anne Winkes said.
Monday’s event wasn’t the first in Skagit County.
Citizens have packed hearing rooms with the Northwest Clean Air Agency, Skagit County Planning and Development Services and the Skagit County Commissioners to protest oil transport.
Volunteer group Protect Skagit came together in March following a “Crude Awakening Oil Tour” show at the Lincoln Theater, Winkes said.
The performance inspired those in the group to urge city officials to pass moratoriums on new oil-by-rail permits so the potential impact of more trains moving through the communities could be studied before becoming a reality, Winkes said. Early on, however, the group switched its focus to rallying the community to protest the Shell proposal.
“We came up with several events we thought could be used to educate people about the dangers of oil-by-rail coming through our communities,” she said.
The group’s first information night June 30 also drew about 80 people. Monday was its second event.
A oil-by-rail forum is planned for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Anacortes Senior Activity Center. The event will be co-hosted by Protect Skagit and other local, regional, state and national environment and community action groups.