Opinion Columns & Blogs

Oil trains pose real risks for our communities

On the morning of July 6, 2013, a train entered Lac-Megantic, Quebec, carrying 72 tanker cars, each with 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Something went wrong. The train derailed and burst into flames, followed by multiple explosions. Within minutes, 47 citizens of that small town were dead and much of the town destroyed.

This past week many people paused during their busy schedule to remember this terrible event. You might ask, however, what does it have to do with me? Quebec is far away and it was a Canadian train and Canadian crude oil, not an American train and American oil. Anyway, train derailments are rare events, aren’t they?

Take a guess — how many oil train derailments with fires have occurred in the United States and Canada so far this year? The answer may shock you — it’s five (three in the U.S. in Illinois, West Virginia and North Dakota; two in Ontario). Two of the events were on Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks.

Luckily, all these derailments and fires occurred in lightly populated areas. Can you imagine if urban areas were involved — five potential disasters such as Lac-Megantic, or worse?

All of the 2015 derailments and fires involved rail shipment of crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken oil field or the Alberta tar sands. Crude oil from Bakken is highly combustible, with butane, methane and propane in the mix. Emergency responders just have to let it burn.

You might have read that the railroads are “voluntarily” creating newer, tougher tanker cars, ones that will not easily rupture. While it’s good to have tougher tanker cars, it’s not the answer to eliminating disastrous derailments resulting in fires and spills. Four of the 2015 fire accidents involved the newer tankers. They do not provide community safety.

Still, surely BNSF keeps its tracks in good repair to eliminate risk. Well, maybe not. In July 2014 a BNSF oil train derailed in the train yard under the Magnolia Bridge in downtown Seattle. Fortunately none of the cars tipped completely over and ruptured. If they had, we all might have a vivid memory of the great Seattle Fire of 2014.

But, you ask, what does it mean for us here in Thurston County? Well, Bakken and Alberta crude oil passes through our communities, with an estimated 250 rail cars per day traveling on the BNSF tracks that traverse our county.

These daily rail shipments also pass over the Nisqually River a scant two miles upstream of our habitat jewel, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. That BNSF trestle over the river was constructed in 1912. A derailment and spill on that ancient bridge would be a regional if not national disaster.

In Thurston County there are at least 500 homes and several public schools within the possible “blast zone” along the BNSF tracks. By “blast zone” I mean the area that could be immediately impacted by a crude oil derailment and fire. And, not surprisingly, home sites continue to be permitted in this zone. I wonder if title reports for those homes identify risks of owning property along railroad tracks where volatile oil is transported daily. If you knew, would you locate your family home there?

But, is there a real risk? Yes, I think there is. Derailments happen. They happen in all conditions and at varying speeds. And, the likely impact of an oil train derailment, with a relatively high probability of a crude oil fire and large-scale oil spill, would be disastrous.

Are you alarmed? I know I am. What can we do?

There is no doubt in my mind that within two generations climate change and ocean carbon conditions will demand that we shift away from using fossil fuels for energy. Why not make that shift now, with Washington in the lead?

The ultimate solution to having fewer oil trains moving through our communities, and addressing climate change, is to reduce the use of oil. Washington needs to put in place a clean fuels standard, to be phased in quickly. And, we should join California in adopting a “Half the Oil” by 2030 policy. Washington has developed some of the greatest computer technology in the world. Surely we can figure out how to reduce our oil consumption in half over the next 15 years.

The climate and ocean will benefit and our communities will be safer. We need to start now, not the week after we experience a devastating derailment and oil fire.

George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager and a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at gwalter5665@gmail.com