Editor’s note: The Seattle Times recently published a guest opinion regarding oil trains. It contained some unfortunate errors. Sightline Policy Director Eric de Place and Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart penned this response.

On September 13, the Seattle Times published an opinion piece by Richard Berkowitz attacking, among other things, advocacy groups, communities worried about oil trains, and research published by Sightline Institute. Unfortunately, his article dismisses the threats that oil trains pose to Northwest cities—and it fails to confront the facts about a rickety, born-yesterday industry.

Here’s a fact: new projects could induce as many as 100 loaded crude oil trains per week to transit Washington. That number, first published by Sightline Institute, comes directly from adding up the industry’s own figures in publicly available permitting documents.

Here’s another fact: no fewer than 10 oil trains have exploded in North America in the last two years, killing 47 people in one instance. That’s why some have taken to calling them “bomb trains.”

Newcomers to our rail system, these oil trains play no part in moving the cargo that makes the Northwest economy tick. Far from boosting commerce, oil trains threaten to derail it. Consider the case of Cold Train, a Quincy, Washington company that, until recently, shipped refrigerated fruits and vegetables. The company went bust after its goods were crowded off the rails by coal and oil trains. The owners of the now-defunct company are suing BNSF, but it’s already too late for the workers who lost their jobs.

“New projects could induce as many as 100 loaded crude oil trains per week to transit Washington.”
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Terry Whiteside, who represents the Wheat and Barley Commissions for many western states, says that “the huge increase in Bakken oil movements and doubling of coal movements have contributed to the worst service meltdown in two decades affecting all commodity movements in the northern tier.” A Cargill executive said much the same thing to the Seattle Times in a 2014 story headlined, clearly enough, “Oil trains crowd out grain shipments to NW ports.”

Coal and oil trains are a problem not only for farmers; they are also a nightmare for on-street traffic congestion. If new oil and coal terminal plans come to fruition, they could create enough train traffic to shut down street crossings in eastern Washington by an average of two to four hours every day. In Seattle, those delays are likely to be shorter—perhaps averaging two hours a day—but they will impact at least eight major streets, including arterials in Sodo critical for freight movement.

  • Again, Sightline arrived at these figures simply by adding up what the project backers themselves say in their permit applications and factoring in estimated train speeds. Moreover, these vehicle delay findings have been corroborated by two independent traffic consulting firms, Parametrix and Gibson.

    Yet worsening traffic is hardly oil trains’ worst insult: they can, and do, kill.

    The first one seemed like a freak accident. An oil train derailed and exploded in a Quebec village, incinerating 47 people. But then it kept happening: train after train loaded with crude oil wobbled off the rails and blew up, their towering infernos now well documented across the internet.

    Seattle, Spokane, and many other Northwest cities are directly in harm’s way. Seattle Assistant Fire Chief A.D. Vickery says, “There’s no department in the world that could deal with a scenario like Quebec or the most recent one in West Virginia. We simply don’t have the economic resources to add additional firefighters, specialized apparatus, and a number of things that would be required to deal with a significant incident.” It’s a sentiment echoed by fire chiefs around the region.

    Berkowitz makes light of the risks of oil trains, but in truth they well illustrate the stakes now facing the Northwest. In just the last few years, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia have seen serious proposals for two new oil pipelines, 10 new or expanded coal export terminals, 14 oil-by-rail facilities, and at least six new natural gas pipelines. If we permit them, these proposals will reshape the economy of our state, from Spokane to Whatcom County—clogging our rail lines, worsening our traffic congestion, and physically endangering our communities. These are weighty decisions that require careful scrutiny—not the plainly false and misleading rhetoric that Berkowitz offers.