EVERETT — More coal, less oil.
That’s what a group of volunteers saw last week when they kept a round-the-clock vigil on the railroad tracks running through Snohomish County.
They counted 29 coal trains and 12 crude-oil trains. That compares to 24 coal trains and 16 crude-oil trains last year.
The new figures are in line with the number of oil-train shipments that BNSF Railway has reported to the state.
This was the second straight year that Snohomish County Train Watch has conducted the census.
“There’s definitely a role for citizen oversight, for citizens auditing,” said Dean Smith, an Everett retiree who founded the group.
Train watchers expected the crude-oil count to stay level, not to decline, Smith said. They hope to perform another tally in about three months to see if the pattern holds.
As recently as 2011, there were no oil trains passing through this area at all.
That changed with the shale-oil boom in North Dakota. Washington attracts many of those shipments as the fifth-largest refining state in the United States. Crude-oil trains travel through Snohomish County to reach refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Safety concerns about crude oil have raised public safety worries in the wake of fiery, sometimes deadly, explosions involving tank cars. That includes a July 2013 derailment that killed 47 people in a small Quebec town, plus several more this year.
Activists also object to coal-by-rail shipments because of pollution from burning coal and the potential environmental damage from coal-train derailments.
Crude-oil shipments have attracted intense attention from state and federal lawmakers.
The Legislature last Friday approved a bill designed to improve the safety around oil shipments through Washington.
It requires advance notice to emergency responders when oil-train shipments are expected. The idea is to improve readiness for potential accidents. The bill also would impose a per-barrel tax to help pay for safety and planning measures. As is, that tax is only imposed on oil that arrives by ship.
“We’re still studying the new language that came in, but at the end of the day, we’re all committed to do what’s in the best interest of the state and to running the safest operation possible,” said Courtney Wallace, a BNSF spokeswoman.
A bill that Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced in March would establish new rules to lessen the volatility of crude oil shipped by tank cars. It also would bring an immediate halt the use of older tank cars known as DOT-111s that pose a higher risk for explosion. A companion bill is working its way through the U.S. House.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to come out with new rules for rail tank car standards as early as Friday. That’s likely to include a timetable for phasing out the DOT-111 cars and even some versions of newer tank-car designs known as CPC-1232s. The agency also is looking at speed-limit restrictions for crude shipments through urban areas.
Separately, the U.S. departments of Energy and Transportation are planning a two-year study into how the chemical properties of crude oil affect its combustibility during rail accidents.
BNSF says that DOT-111s account for about 20 percent of the tank cars in use on its tracks throughout North America. Rail customers, such as oil companies and refineries, own the tank cars.
Smith, from the train watch group, estimated that about one-third of the tank cars he saw were the older DOT-111 models.
This year’s count ran from April 19 to 25. About 30 volunteers participated.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in June 2014 ordered railroads to start providing states with information about crude-oil shipments of 1 million or more gallons. Washington makes that information public through the state Military Department. Each oil train pulls up to 100 cars carrying a total of 3 million gallons of oil.
The federal order requires railroads to update oil shipment figures if they increase or decrease by 25 percent or more.
Last weekend in Everett, Smith and other volunteers met in neighborhoods near the tracks to practice an evacuation drill simulating an escape from an exploding oil train. Turnout was small.
The train watch group has been trying to work with Everett’s emergency management and fire officials to prepare for a derailment. They’d like to see emergency-preparedness training focus more on evacuation drills. They would like to see the city work with Naval Station Everett to use the base’s public address system to warn people during a disaster.
“We certainly appreciate the rail safety group’s attention to this issue and their efforts to make sure that the concerns are being addressed and that the safety issues are staying in the public eye,” said Bob Edgley, the fire department’s assistant chief of training.
City firefighters have trained with a regional hazmat team on oil-spill response and have participated in specialized training for crude-oil fires organized by BNSF. While the volume of crude oil traveling through the region is unprecedented, Edgley noted that trains have been carrying hazardous materials through Everett since the city was founded in the late 19th century.