Shell’s proposal for an oil-by-rail facility at its refinery on March Point has drawn significant public interest, with concerned citizens protesting what they call “bomb trains.”
Some fear fiery explosions if a derailment were to happen, or spilled oil swirling in the water with salmon and contaminating drinking water.
Some activists are encouraging the community to get involved.
Environment groups ForestEthics and RE Sources for Sustainable Communities held a series of webinars and workshops in October to help the community organize thoughts about Shell’s proposal.
The groups said they hope more comments on the environmental impact statement will better the chance that the scope will extend beyond the March Point site.
“I think the scope should be as broad as possible, as inclusive as possible of all the potential impacts along the rail corridor,” Anacortes resident Carolyn Gastellum said.
Oil trains that now go to the Tesoro Anacortes Refinery on March Point — and would head to the Shell facility if the proposal goes through — pass through Conway, Mount Vernon and Burlington, and over the Skagit River and Swinomish Channel, which connects with Padilla Bay.
That’s just in Skagit County.
From its origin in North Dakota, Bakken crude oil moved by train passes through four other states and several other Washington counties, according to a BNSF Railway Northern Corridor map.
“This proposed nearly daily transportation of huge volumes of a dangerous product through our communities is extremely risky,” Mount Vernon resident Mary Ruth Holder said.
Holder is one of many who live within a half-mile of the train tracks — an area the Federal Railroad Administration has defined as the blast zone.
“I am concerned for the safety of myself, my neighbors and the city I love,” she said.
Erica Frank and Laura Skelton of the state group of the Physicians for Social Responsibility say the EIS should examine derailments, spills, explosions, traffic impacts, train noise, air and water pollution, and effects on climate change.
Frank said the study should also evaluate whether communities are prepared for the worst.
“Could local health care and emergency response systems handle a worst-case accident?” she said.
Tom Glade, president of the nonprofit Evergreen Islands, said the study should include all potential environmental, health and safety, and economic impacts.
“For us, the main problem is that the Bakken crude oil is highly volatile and likely to explode in a derailment ... Our main concern is first the potential of harm to communities like Mount Vernon or Burlington,” Glade said.
He compared the risks of shipping oil by rail to the nuclear power plant proposals Skagit County communities successfully fought in the 1970s.
“It seems like they’re willing to risks the lives of Skagitonians for the economic benefit,” Glade said.
Evergreen Islands, which focuses on environmental law, wants Shell’s project to be denied until at least two rail bridges in Skagit County are replaced and Bakken crude oil is put through a process for safer transport.
Sending highly flammable material cross-country raises concern among many who live and work near the rail lines.
In Skagit County, the tracks pass within a mile of schools in Conway and Mount Vernon, as well as the historic downtown areas in Mount Vernon and Burlington.
The tracks also cross the Skagit River on a 100-year-old wooden bridge and go over the Swinomish Channel on a swing bridge that is even older.
A spill at the Swinomish Channel swing bridge would affect Padilla Bay — prime habitat for young salmon — said Anacortes resident Ed Gastellum, who is involved with the Padilla Bay Foundation.
BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an email that the bridges of concern are two of 13,000 in the country on the railway’s tracks. All bridges, she said, are inspected annually, and some more often than that.
“The visual appearance of these structures is not indicative of their structural integrity ... Both bridges meet all applicable safety standards for rail traffic,” she said.
That’s not enough assurance for those concerned with Padilla Bay, which has one of the largest eelgrass beds on the West Coast and is a treasured source of salmon, shellfish, crabs and other wildlife.
“The health of this marine environment is vital to our fishing industry, subsistence fishing by First Nations members, and tourism in the area. Detailed transparent study of the integrity of these bridges, and who bears liability should they fail, is needed,” Bow resident Ginny Wolff said.