This weekend my daughter and I joined about 100 of our fellow Puget Sounders in a protest rally against oil trains coming through Seattle. Ive written about oil-by-rail repeatedly (Actions 96,97,101) because this is an important and increasingly dangerous proposition for metropolitan areas across North America.
As development and extraction of oil shale grows, oil-by-rail is one of the major ways in which oil is moving from the interior of the country to its coastal ports, where it is often transferred onto ships to be exported overseas to oil-hungry countries including China. In part because there has been an exponential growth in transport of oil products by rail, and in part because there are major gaps in the regulatory framework that is supposed to ensure this rail system safely transports the oil (See Actions 96 and 97), the number of oil-by-rail accidents has also risen dramatically in just the past few years. Four major accidents have occurred in the past six months in association with oil exports from the North Dakota Bakken Formation: a 400,000 gallon spill and explosion after two trains collided in North Dakota, thousands of barrels of oil spilling into an Alabama wetland after a derailment, a derailment outside Edmonton last fall, and the horrifying Lac Megantic oil train derailment and explosion last summer that killed 47 people and incinerated a good portion of the town. In fact, more crude oil was spilled in US rail incidents in 2013 than the total amount of oil that spilled in rail incidents between 1975 and 2012.
So, its not surprising that given this recent history, the National Transportation Safety Board recently came out with a series of recommendations for improving oil train safety, including the recommendation that transportation of oil by trains “avoids populated areas.” While that’s a nice sentiment, its a little unclear how that happens when the destination of most of this oil is overseas, and to get there, it kind of has to move towards the densely populated coastal areas of our country. Seattle is right in the middle of one of the major pathways to the coast – currently about 3 oil trains run through downtown Seattle each week on their way to the Anacortes refinery. There’s been talk that that number could go as high as 24 trains a week, if oil-by-rail continues to accelerate the way it has been.
Hence, the reason for Sunday’s protest. Its not certainly not enough for those of us who care about our fellow citizen’s safety and climate change to jump up and down on train tracks. But I do think its important to raise awareness about the fact that dangerous oil trains are, as we speak, being transported through major metropolitan areas with woefully inadequate regulation to ensure our safety. Some heartening news is that there are efforts to change this: my senator, Christine Rolfes, is co-sponsoring SB6262/HB 2347, the Oil Transportation Safety Act, which aims to strengthen Washington’s regulatory oversight and requirements to improve oil-by-rail safety by doing things like increasing tug escort requirements for oil barges and help communities develop emergency response plans. These bills represent an important and necessary first step in reducing the risks of accidents and increasing our ability to respond quickly when they do occur. Because all bets are on, as one speaker said at our rally, that its not a question of if, but when, the next spill will happen. And if we don’t make some decisions about both how to regulate oil by rail, and to what extent we want the Pacific Northwest facilitating export of fossil fuels abroad, we are certainly are increasing our chances of becoming the next awful case study of the dangers of oil by rail.