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.”
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.
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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.
Someone skilled with the language should describe the severe enabling of global warming by assisting in the transport to combustion of fossil fuel.
Great post, thanks for setting the record straight.
Hmm… I wonder, this summer when heat moves above 100 degrees, and the sun heated black train cars going into the tunnel, where petroleum fumes and coal dust cannot be dispersed by the wind, and the rails curving and steel wheel sparks flying, what can we think will happen? Will the Seattle Times be covering this? Will they write a story on why it happened?
When you read all the negative impacts of transporting oil for export by rail (and Puget Sound shipping, just remember no one needs the oil (or coal) exported to foreign markets except those who profit from it. We have an adequate domestic supply. The increase in coal and oil rail shipping is already disrupting the quality of life and depreciating real estaste values for residents of places on the rail line along I-5 like Mount Vernon. Can we really take more?
First of all let’s address some of the “facts” in this case…. It is a horrible thing that an oil train derailed in CANADA and killed 47 people. Due to the nature of Canadian railroad rules at the time there was a one man crew on that train. Engineer only. United States currently requires a 2 man crew to operate any train that handles hazardous material. In all actuality most derailment in the United states are normally small and not nearly as horrible as this article makes it out to be. New rules implemented by BNSF railway requires trains travel no more than 35mph in areas designated as high threat urban areas. Federal law is 40mph. Once again the rr steps above federal law to make things safe.
Now let’s talk about the refrigerated vegetable dealer. Last I knew most successful businesses have a backup plan for a successful business. Remember the saying all your eggs in one basket. Enough about that dumb move.
Let’s consider oil and coal shipments having an affect on grain shipments. Did anyone who had anything to do with this article look into the fact that grain facilities hold their grain waiting for a better price then want to ship 400 trains worth in one week and wonder why the railroad can’t handle the volume?
Do a little more research before you decide to blame a company that employees 1000s in your state and keeps the economy moving.
Nice try Mgk, but your comments don’t stand scrutiny. Are we to believe that just because the Union fought BNSF corporation to have 2 people on each train that that has reduced the derailments and subsequent explosions? The explosions in Alberta and North Dakota and West Virginia were not insignificant events. If they happened a few miles down the track there would have been significant number of victims. So that argument is just wishful thinking on your part.
With the huge increase in the oil and coal trains BNSF only has so much rolling stock so of course there is much left to transport grain and other agricultural products. There have been numerous articles in the news media about this shortage.
Finally, I doubt that over 1000 people are employed in WA state by BNSF. Show us your source for that inflated figure. I would guess the number is less than 500 and that is optimistic. The trains are controlled by a center in Texas. Those are not WA residents.
Not «Due to the nature of Canadian railroad rules at the time there was a one man crew on that train.», but due to the complacency of the canadian government with many companies run by cowboys owners (in this case a Chicago company with an obscure trackrecord…) to serve its sole obsession of shipping always more and more petrolum from the west.
And now they want to impose to us the biggest North American pipeline (Energy East) that would bring us nothing else than big dangers for our majestic St-Lawrence river, the source of drinking water of 60% of quebecers…
Eric de Place
Mgk, almost everything you said is either wrong or misleading.
Lac-Megantic was not an isolated occurrence. We’ve seen catastrophic explosions from oil trains no fewer than 10 times over the last 27 months or so: http://www.sightline.org/2015/05/06/oil-train-explosions-a-timeline-in-pictures/. You can find them on new track and old track, high speeds and low speeds, heavy oil and light oil… the industry is fundamentally unsafe.
The tension between oil and agriculture is hardly limited to the example I used in the article. For one of many explorations of the issue, check out this well reported story in the Seattle Times: http://www.seattletimes.com/business/oil-trains-crowd-out-grain-shipments-to-nw-ports/
Canada will be voting for a new gov in 2 weeks. Incumbent PM Harper has been campaigning a lot on the supposed «need» to fight terrorism everywhere all te time.
In Quebec, the worst attack we suffered in the last decades has been this one. Not only 47 killed, but also the whole center of the city has been blown out ! It happened in July 2013, and the city center is STILL a noman’s land…
«Tracking the inferno: Runaway oil train explosion destroys town center», RTNews, 6July 2013,
We fear much more a repeat of that kind of catastrophic «accident» than any terrorist attack…. This mainly because the same Harper government, and the petrocraty that took over Canada, still doesn’t care to much about the dangers that come from its side of the fence…
Conseiller en commerce international et changements climatiques
Advisor in International Commerce and Climate Change
Asesor en comercio internacional y cambio climático
Montréal, Québec (Canada)
As reported in the LA Times, 59% of the 31 oil train crashes reviewed since 2013 were the result of “track failure”
In some cases, the track is freshly laid and completely within DOT standards yet the dynamic stresses of a fully loaded oil train sloshing along is sufficient to cause derailments, spills and possibly explosions. The Department of Transportation cannot be allowed to focus on damage mitigation from these dangerous derailments. They must be forced to focus on accident prevention because the cost in terms of human life can be so terribly high.