Photo by Shane Harms
Three oil cars derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in southern Interbay.

City and state officials address oil trains in Seattle after Interbay derailment

On July 24 a train with 102 cars pulling 100 loads of crude oil -- 27,000 gallons of oil -- derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in southern Interbay.

The train was moving at five miles per hour as it pulled out of a BNSF rail yard when the wheels of the second locomotive derailed. The third car, loaded with sand, went off the rails disrupting the next three cars that carried crude.

Because the cars were the new fortified safety models, no crude spilled. No one was injured.

“It is a huge relief that this oil train derailment in the heart of Ballard-Interbay's maritime industrial center did not hurt anyone or spill oil. We were lucky this time. We shouldn't have to wait for people to get hurt to make the right decision that protects our kids and our kids' futures,” said 36th District Rep. Gael Tarleton.

The 100 cars were loaded with Bakken (North Dakota) crude and were headed to an Anacortes refinery.

Bakken is extremely flammable. At normal temperatures, a common thing like heat, sparks, flames or static discharges can cause it to explode. Moreover, crude vapors can form explosive mixtures with air and spread within confined areas such as sewers.

Last week City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and all eight of his council colleagues signed a letter calling for the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to issue an emergency order prohibiting the shipment of Bakken crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank train cars.

“Dozens of people have died in crude-by-rail accidents when DOT-111 tank cars were punctured and spilled flammable crude,” said O’Brien. “The catastrophic explosions can be triggered by a single spark and yet they travel on tracks underneath downtown and flanking both Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field. Seattle cannot afford to sit idly by with public safety in our city at risk,” O”Brien made in a statement.

O’Brien’s resolution implored Secretary Anthony Foxx to swiftly phase out older model tank cars (DOT-111 ) currently used to move many flammable liquids.

On July 23 U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules that would phase out the use of the DOT-111 cars in two years. However, some state reps say that’s going far enough.

36th District Rep. Reuven Carlyle said “Our 36th District team worked hard last year to pass the Oil Transportation Safety Act but the bill failed after encountering strong industry and Republican Party opposition.”

“The legislative would protect Seattle communities and others statewide through disclosure of dangerous materials, funds to educate and protect against skills, training and so much more. We must recommit to passing the bill next year given the severe increase in Bakken oil traffic and the coal export plans,” said Carlyle.

But there’s more than oil riding the rails. 40 percent of Washington jobs depend on trade and trade does not happen without the rails. Some who oppose the legislation say it would negatively effect the industry and overall trade.

“The economic benefits of coal export and oil trains are modest at best and are highly concentrated in rural areas of Whatcom County, while the sweeping costs are borne by communities from Spokane to Clark County to Tacoma, Seattle and Everett. It's bad policy, bad economics and a 19th Century proposal trapped in a 21st Century global community. We need quality rail and public infrastructure but not for coal and oil from Wyoming and North Dakota that would virtually wipe out the economic viability of apples from Wenatchee to the Port of Seattle.”

" Many of us Senate Democrats were very dismayed and frustrated when the majority Republicans refused to consider the House bill. I spoke in debate on the Senate floor Republican, pointing out the risk to citizens across the state but in particular to those in the 36th district residing near the rail tracks, as I do in Belltown," said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles

According to BNSF Railway reports, 8-13 oil trains move through Seattle per week. These trains contain 1 million or more gallons of Bakken crude.

With such a threat looming, City of Seattle’s public safety concerns related to the oil trains were addressed in the April 2014 testimony of Seattle’s Director of Office of Emergency Management before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies in the Committee on Appropriations.

In the testimony, Barb Graff, Director, City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management, expressed major concerns for the impact a natural disaster or oil train accidents would have on the region.

Graff, cited the two major freight carriers operating in Seattle: BNSF and Union Pacific. Their train yards are located in the large flat areas of within Seattle that have been identified as “liquefaction zones”: land that would liquefy during a major earthquake.

Prompted by the potential danger, BNSF is making changes to rail ways like ordering newer model rail cars and lowering speeds. However, since BNSF is regulated by the feds, the city has no way to regulated types of shipments.

After the derailment Mayor Murray spoke with US Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

“Even though they travel through our city, we as a city, do not have control over how the railways are used, and we must rely on the safety standards that are set at the federal level. I thanked Secretary Foxx for yesterday’s release of new oil train safety rules and I am committed to working with him to make these rules as strong as possible, “said Murray.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, large swathes up to one-half mile or more around an accident site are considered vulnerable. If an accident were to happen it could easily affect more than 600 thousand people living and working in densely populated sections of Seattle where train routes pass through.

The environment, however, is affected most.

“Oil spills and explosions risk destroying salmon spawning grounds and oyster and clam beds, which sustain livelihoods and a way of life for our tribal nations and all those jobs that depend on the fisheries. … China's demand for oil will be around for decades, but our state needs rail transportation safety upgrades now,” said Tarleton.

“If we're going to ship oil by train, then it's in everyone's interests to reduce the risk of derailments. If our rail infrastructure is used for public transit as well as cargo hauling, then let's put a premium on setting the highest safety standards possible.”

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