Early on July 24, while most residents in the quiet Seattle neighborhoods of Magnolia and Queen Anne were still asleep, an oil train derailed just a few hundred feet from their homes. Each of the train’s oil cars was carrying roughly 30,000 gallons of a notoriously explosive type of shale oil.
It’s exactly the same kind of train, loaded up with exactly the same kind of fuel, that resulted in a deadly explosion in Quebec in July 2013, as well as train derailments, oil spills and massive conflagrations in Alabama, North Dakota, New Brunswick and Lynchburg, VA.
Our city was lucky to be spared a major disaster. No fire or explosion resulted from the derailment, and no fuel spilled into our waterways.
Yet the event was a wake-up call. More and more of these oil trains are crossing our city, right next to Safeco and Century Link fields, through our downtown and near Pike Place Market; past homes, neighborhoods, schools, playgrounds and alongside waterways. An explosion or a spill in any of these places would mean human and environmental tragedy.
The oil-by-rail industry offers us mostly hollow assurances. It suggests that the new, “safer” design rail cars are proof against an explosion and derailments are so rare we shouldn’t worry about them.
Here are the facts:
■ At current shipping rates, loaded oil trains in North America have derailed and exploded destructively no fewer than five times in the last year
■ The Northwest region currently averages nine freight train derailments per month.
■ The new railcars the industry says it will phase in still have serious design flaws and, when run in a mix with older cars, the new cars lost most of the added safety benefits.
■ The oil-by-rail industry has refused to phase out older railcars over the next several years, prioritizing their own goal of ramping up oil shipping volumes as fast as possible over concerns about public safety and disaster planning.
■ In a small Quebec town, 47 people were incinerated and several downtown blocks leveled by a derailed oil train. So, although BNSF Railway asserts that the odds of an explosive derailment are low, should one occur in a densely populated urban area like Seattle, the costs in human life, property and infrastructure damages could be catastrophic.
■ The 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”
■ Oil and rail companies have meddled in state politics to block legislation that would require them to disclose the type and quantity of oil being transported through local towns and cities for public safety and disaster planning purposes.
■ More oil trains, along with more coal trains, will cause hours of additional traffic delay for drivers at railroad crossings throughout the Pacific Northwest and especially in King County.
■ Oil and coal train traffic have already seriously disrupted shipments from other major industries in our regional economy, including our iconic grain and fruit businesses from inland growers.
To get involved in making oil transport safe, you can connect with Washington Environmental Council and others who are fighting back: http://wecprotects.org/issues-campaigns/puget-sound/oil-transportation
Much like those sleeping North Seattle residents, most people still don’t know about the oil trains rumbling through town. Yet the threat to our city’s public safety and our economy is no less real.
To learn more about oil-by-rail plans in the Northwest, you can visit Sightline’s website: http://daily.sightline.org/blog_series/the-northwests-pipeline-on-rails/