Effort to Stop Bakken Oil Trains

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Sat, Oct 24, 2015, 1:26 pm  //  John Servais

Large Great Blue Heron colony near March Point is threatened by oil train expansions. Photo with permission of Lance Ekhart Photography.

Some Whatcom County environmental folks want to help our neighbors in Skagit County fight the expansion of rail traffic to the Shell refinery near Anacortes.  Due to early action on the part of Skagit citizens, the huge refinery complex on March Point has been forced into an environmental review of its proposed rail yards.  This is similar to the expansion that was allowed without any EIS at Whatcom County refineries.  

On this coming Wednesday evening, Oct 28, at 7:30 p.m. group organizer, Claudia DeWees, will host a meeting and slideshow at the RE Sources community room on the corner of Broadway and Meridian. All are welcome.  In the words of the group's notice, "Fact sheets and comment cards will be provided. You can make a comment on the spot. Public comments submitted during the scoping process will widen the investigation of this threat but there is not much time. The comment process ends Nov. 5th."

The Washington Department of Ecology is taking comments on the environmental review up to November 5.

The concern is not only the increased train traffic but also the destruction of the Padilla Bay area if one of these 110-car trains derails and either spills oil into the bay, or even worse, explodes as have other Bakken oil trains.  The largest heron colony in Washington state is located 619 feet from the railroad tracks, on March Point.  An explosion would wipe it out.  There are also sensitive shellfish grounds in Padilla Bay which could be wiped out from even an oil spill.  Shell plans to bring 5 or 6 trains a week over the Padilla Bay causeway and past the heron colony. 

The oil industry, the railroad industry and the federal government have all shown themselves to be very slow at making safety improvements while very good at pointing the finger to each other and even their investors in railroad tank cars as being responsible for derailments, oil spills and explosions.  Thus, the serious concern of citizens and the effort to push the Department of Ecology into either prohibiting the rail yard expansion or imposing serious and effective safeguards.  

For the past several decades, most crude oil has not come by rail.  With the development of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through fracking, there is a push to bring this oil across the mountains and up the coast to Skagit and Whatcom county refineries.  



David Camp  //  Sat, Oct 24, 2015, 7:08 pm

Pipelines are safer than trains to transport oil. However, the Bakken is a short play - too short to justify a pipeline UNLESS there is a longer play hooked in with it. This is why the Keystone XL makes economic sense - it combines short play Bakken oil with long play tar sands oil, spreading costs out over a longer period and thus yielding a better payback.

However, isn’t rail preferable to ship, which is how the rest of the oil arrives at Anacortes? A spill at sea is both larger and more catastrophic than a spill of a car or two on land. Of course an explosion like in Megantic was more catastrophic again but I think this is what we’re talking about - mitigating explosion risk to the max, because unless we radically change our oil-burning ways as Americans, the demand will continue, and the trains are inevitable. I repeat, inevitable, since a pipeline is not economic.

Sad reality. We have to quit burning oil but how do we get there?

John Servais  //  Sat, Oct 24, 2015, 8:45 pm

Wow, David.  Perhaps a slightly different perspective might have value here.  The issue is not whether we should transport oil - as your comment suggests the issue is. It is not a question of us being responsible for transport disasters because we use oil.  Rather the issue is how to transport oil so as not to cause destruction and death along the shipping route.  Whether by ship, pipe or train the issue is the same.  So the question then becomes - can oil be transported safely?  And the answer seems to be yes - but it cuts into the profits of the mega multi national corporations and so it is not done. 

Can we transport safely?  Yes.  And so we have the efforts of the Skagit folks.  The railroads - BNSF in this case - do not want to run a totally safe railroad.  Cost benefit advantage is not with running a railroad safely.  Costs of fines and cleanup are obviously less than building and maintaining a safe rail transport system.  How can we conclude that?  Because if safety provided a lower cost system then the railroads would go that way.  Really. They don’t want to hurt anyone or destroy Padilla Bay for the next hundred years.  But their fines for doing so are much less than building a safe rail route, having shorter trains than 110 tank cars, and less than switching to really safe tank cars. We can go on.  There is slower trains, better track maintenance, better maintenance of the tank cars, shorter hours for the engineers, more pay for the engineers, more automatic rail safety devices, etc. 

Yes, we can ship oil so as to not endanger Padilla Bay, to not risk driving the herons from their nesting trees, to not pollute our streams and not endanger our towns.  But the railroads - BNSF - does not want to do that because it cuts into profits. And it sure seems like our state and federal agencies are most reluctant to make them run their railroads in a safe manner.  We can think that because of the poor record of train safety since the 1840s right up to today.  Railroads write the railroad laws in this country. 

Safety, David.  Safe transportation of dangerous cargoes. It can be done.  And that is the issue.

David Camp  //  Sun, Oct 25, 2015, 3:54 pm

Actually John the real issue is how long we can continue to burn the stuff and pretend it’s not harming the living systems of the planet. Being concerned about transport safety of oil and ignoring the bigger issue is rather like an alcoholic agonizing over a indigestion while ignoring his drink-caused cirrhosis of the liver.

John Servais  //  Sun, Oct 25, 2015, 5:17 pm

The issue of this post revolves around the meeting on Wednesday and the concerns about oil trains coming into the Shell refinery at March Point in Skagit County. 

David, I can take you up a step and tell you that oil is only one issue harming the planet and people.  We can get pretty metaphysical in a few more comments.  But this modest gathering on this coming Wednesday evening is not to discuss the future of clean energy.  Such lofty concepts are nice.  These folks just want to preserve the heron colony until the day the oil trains are no longer needed and no longer a threat to the heron colony.  Oh, and no longer a threat to Padilla Bay, the towns in Skagit County and the people living there. 

Reminds me of when I was in college and minoring in philosophy.  It suddenly all became so absurd.  So I switched the minor to geology.  Wacking hard rock was so much more based on reality than advanced concepts of ethics.  We can get pretty far out there theorizing when all we need to do is take out the garbage.  Lets have safe oil trains for as long or short a time as they are running.

Doug Karlberg  //  Sun, Oct 25, 2015, 8:19 pm

John, and guests. I have one suggestion, but I do not have time for te meetings. Maybe one of you can mention this, if someone has not already caught it.

The rail bridge over the Swinomish slough is decrepit. When the train crosses it block most boat traffic over the slough. In the last ten years or so, after the train passes it has jammed, and long boat traffic blockages result. Workers with iron bars literally have to come a jimmy the bridge loose.

When I have been delayed I have a had the opportunity to survey the bridge in great detail, and this bridge, in my less than expert judgement is very old, and long past its safe useful life.

John Servais  //  Sun, Oct 25, 2015, 8:49 pm

Doug, your experience is practical and of value.  In writing this post I almost mentioned the bridge because it has appeared to me to be an ancient relic.  It would be interesting to have state or federal inspectors go on the record as to the fitness of this bridge.  Me thinks they will be reluctant to declare it in fit shape for 110 car oil trains.  Your suggestion is spot on, imo.

Scary fact is the bridge is being used now for Bakken oil trains servicing the Tesoro refinery, neighboring the Shell refinery on the north end of March Point.  Of our 4 refineries in two counties, three are already fully outfitted with new special tracks and yards for off loading the Bakken oil.  Our state Department of Ecology has quietly allowed them to do as they pleased without studies of any substance.  The Shell refinery is our last chance to bring out the safety issues on these new oil trains.

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