Multiple news accounts reported just now that a loaded oil train derailed under the Magnolia Bridge, about a mile north of downtown Seattle. Joel Connelly’s account here. Many others here. The derailment apparently happened at slow speeds; no fuel spilled and no fire resulted.
Here are some important resources on oil trains:
- Sightline has written extensively about the Northwest’s oil-by-rail industry. Here’s our primer on oil train developments.
- Loaded oil trains have derailed and exploded catastrophically no fewer than five times in the last year. In one instance, the explosion killed 47 people. A recent mapping analysis by ForestEthics shows that an oil train explosion at that location could have impacted large swaths of the Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods. At a glance, I would estimate that at least several hundred people live or work within close range of the site.
- Sightline has analyzed federal rail safety databases and shown that the Northwest region averages nine derailments per month.
- Early accounts suggest that today’s derailment happened at 2:00 am or 4:00 am, but we know that BNSF Railways routes loaded oil trains through the city at very dangerous times, like during the ninth inning of a Mariner’s game at Safeco Field.
- Railroads are radically under-insured against the risks of an oil train explosion in an urban area. As one major insurer told the Wall Street Journal, “There is not currently enough available coverage in the commercial insurance market anywhere in the world to cover the worst-case [train derailment] scenario.”
- The train that derailed was apparently bound for the Tesoro Refinery at Anacortes, the first site in the Northwest to begin receiving oil trains. Tesoro, an oil company with a very checkered history, has plans to build a gigantic oil train-to-tanker facility on the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington.
- Warren Buffett is the single most important player in oil-by-rail. His Berkshire Hathaway investment group has full ownership of BNSF Railway, the operator of the train that derailed today. He also owns Union Tank Car, the manufacturer or lessor of at least two of the derailed cars, which are marked UTLX. Video footage shows that other tank cars are marked CBTX, which means they are owned by the troubled CIT Group whose tank cars were involved in a recent oil train explosion in Virgina.
- A source involved with emergency management is saying that the derailed tank cars are newer model CPC-1232s. Technically speaking, they “exceed federal standards”—standards that have been kept weak at industry behest—but it is also true that federal safety investigators have identified several serious design flaws in those tank cars. The proof? Even these “safer” tank cars have derailed and exploded recently. Here are the jaw-dropping images of the exact same model of tank car on fire this spring in Virginia.