The menace of crude-by-rail was thrown into relief on Wednesday as the Washington Department of Ecology handed Gov. Jay Inslee the preliminary findings and recommendations of its marine and rail oil transportation study.
As Halloween looms, the nightmarish what-ifs scream for state and federal attention.
“Today, the health and safety of Washington’s residents are at risk,” Inslee said. “Oil trains are running through Washington every day that are outdated, inadequate and outright dangerous. This is unacceptable to me and I’m sure to every Washingtonian.”
The 2013 derailment of an oil train in Quebec and attendant inferno that killed 47 people brought into focus the danger of transporting Bakken crude by rail, particularly with older DOT-111 tank cars, derisively called “the Ford Pinto of rail cars.” These aging carriers — around 80,000 are in use — are more likely to puncture than newer tank cars with sturdier hulls.
In July, three tanker cars on a BNSF train carrying highly flammable Bakken crude derailed below the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood, inching along at only 5 mph. Bakken crude has become an everyday feature of the Northwest landscape, with Washington the fifth-largest refining state in the U.S.
Shipments into the Pacific Northwest quietly began two years ago. According to the Department of Ecology, Washington went from zero barrels a year in 2011 to nearly 17 million barrels in 2013.
“So sudden was the region’s oil boom that companies found themselves with scant infrastructure,” the Sightline Institute’s Eric de Place writes in an institute report. “Railways seized the opportunity to play a role traditionally reserved for pipelines: moving large volumes of crude oil. The rail industry embarked on a breakneck campaign of building tanker cars as refineries and ports began hatching plans to receive the product from trains.”
Earlier this year, the Legislature mandated the oil-train report and Inslee issued a directive in June to accelerate Ecology’s findings to tee up a priority list for the next session. A successful strategy needs to be two-pronged, state and federal. On Tuesday, Inslee sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx insisting on a one-year phase out of the T-111 tank cars and asking that trains carrying “high-hazard materials” not exceed 40 miles per hour in populated areas. On the state end, the emphasis is on prevention, preparedness and response, including funding for more railroad inspectors.
Risk management involves every conceivable precaution. Put people and safety first.