Editorial: Keep oil- and coal-train safety on track

Regional public safety, massive public expense and equity in rail access are all issues with oil-train and coal-train traffic surges.

Seattle Times Editorial, August 1, 2014

SO much for any “what if” scenario for the derailment of tanker cars carrying volatile crude oil through Seattle or elsewhere in Washington state.


Five of a train’s 102 cars went off the track July 24 under the Magnolia Bridge as the train traveled at less than 5 mph. Three of the five cars carried crude oil from Bakken, N.D. Nearly 100 of the cars were transporting the potentially explosive contents.


A phrase from another time has sudden relevance: unsafe at any speed. The event occurred the day after the federal government announced it would require faster replacement of tens of thousands of old tank cars with dated design specifications and construction materials.


U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was a key proponent of the tougher federal regulations announced July 23. She noted there were virtually no oil shipments through Washington in 2011. In 2013 the number was 17 million barrels. She said that is expected to triple in 2014.


The confluence of events around the oil-train derailment was even bigger. Citizens turned out the same day for a Seattle rally against oil-train shipments to a Cherry Point refinery in Whatcom County.


The day before the train derailment, the Seattle City Council unanimously asked the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to halt shipments of Bakken crude oil until old tank cars were replaced.


Finally, on the day of the derailment, the Puget Sound Regional Council released a study that detailed the massive public spending needed to manage dramatic increases in oil- and coal-train traffic.


Keeping cities and towns safe and functional along the rail routes from Spokane to Washington ports might involve adding underpasses and overpasses to keep local traffic and emergency vehicles moving.


Oil and coal trains compete for space — or more accurately, they hog space — needed by the state’s homegrown agricultural sector to get products to market.


Citizen rallies and testimony during comment periods help hold public officials and public process accountable.


Last spring, a Northwest chapter of a National Climate Assessment looked ahead at what to expect with climate change in this region. One finding is already upon us: Wildfires and mountain pine beetles will menace the forests. We are living it.


Public notice has been served on the reality of oil trains, and the consequences of increased coal-train traffic.

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