Oil Trains Passing Through Create Safety Concerns

By Michael Whitney, February 11, 2014, Snohomish County Tribune

The rumble of more oil trains has city leaders concerned enough to seek if they can do anything to divert train routes out of downtown.

The trains go past Monroe, Snohomish and may wind through downtown Everett before heading northbound past the Port of Everett to refineries in Anacortes.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman Gus Melonas said last week he is not permitted to release train route details for any form of cargo, citing shipment security.

Oil train loads are generally safe, according to expert analysts, but when something goes wrong the results can be catastrophic. Recent explosions from derailments in Quebec, Canada (a fluke accident that killed 47) and North Dakota combined with the rapid increase in crude oil rail shipments have made oil train safety topical for legislators.

Oil train safety has Everett’s attention. The city is currently holding internal discussions on what it can do.

“We are asking about the routes and exploring if we have any influence” on the trains, Mayor Ray Stephanson said at a public meeting Monday, Jan. 27.

The city has no written statements on oil trains yet. It’s too early for anything to be produced, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said last week.

“Even if we didn’t have the ability to influence (oil train routing), we will voice our concerns,” Pembroke said.

The explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last July happened when a runaway train rolled back and derailed, but the explosion killed 47 people because the crash happened in the center of a small town. These cars, though, were carrying a gasoline-like fuel mislabeled as oil, according to Canadian transportation officials.

The influx of oil trains are headed from a big oilfield in North Dakota to refineries in places like Anacortes, where Tesoro Corp. and Shell have refineries. Oil production at the North Dakota Bakken oilfield has rapidly blossomed, and crude oil shipments by trains have grown 400 percent since 2005, according to the freight industry trade group Association of American Railroads’ most recent annual report.

A daily average of 1.5 oil trains travel through Washington, Melonas said.

The crude oil shipped locally used to predominantly come from Alaska, according to the Seattle-based Sightline Institute.

Refined oil is shipped out of the ports of Tacoma, Anacortes and Vancouver, British Columbia. The Port of Vancouver, Wash. is proposing to build the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the Northwest to transport up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil every day by train.

The safety of oil train cars is being called out. Both Burlington and the Association of American Railroads recently called for stricter hazardous materials tank car standards, which oil shipments would fall under.

Tesoro last week agreed to take its remaining outdated crude oil train cars off the lines by this summer.

The influx of oil trains is reportedly causing delays to passenger trains in the midwest, but the local impact has been minimal.

Neither the Amtrak Cascades nor Sound Transit’s Sounder North and South trains have reported delays, representatives for both systems said. Sounder North has priority over freight rail traffic, Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.

One carload of an oil train can hold 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, according to the rail trade association.


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