Quebec oil train disaster must not be repeated here

The News TribuneJuly 14, 2013 

Even a minimal risk becomes a serious risk if multiplied enough. The improbable — but catastrophic — explosion of tank cars in Quebec should have us thinking about the oil trains headed for our corner of the continent.

The crude oil that flattened a section of Lac-Megantic and killed dozens of its citizens July 6 had come from North Dakota, where new drilling technology has turned the Bakken geologic formation into a Persian Gulf-scale bonanza of petroleum.

New pipeline construction hasn’t caught up with that bonanza, so North Dakota’s oil industry has been shipping out immense quantities of crude on long trains.

The Port of Tacoma saw its first such “rolling pipeline” from North Dakota last November. Oil trains with be pulling into Tacoma and other Washington cities with increasing frequency, and the potential size of this black tide is staggering.

The Sightline Institute, an environmentalist research group, recently did a survey of the places where petroleum companies are moving to expand petroleum capacity in this state. In addition to Tacoma, those destinations include terminals and refineries in Vancouver, Hoquiam, Anacortes and Ferndale.

The group estimates that Tacoma could see an average of a train a day when current oil-by-rail plans are completed; it estimates that Vancouver could see an average of 10 a day with a large new crude oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

Emphasis on “could” — environmentalists have been known to overstate their cases. But even if Sightline is highballing the numbers, there’s no question a whole lot more tank cars will be rolling this way in the next few years. This on top of a potential surge of long Montana coal trains that threaten to bisect cities in Western Washington.

Pipelines are far safer than rail; whatever happened to that train in Lac-Megantic wouldn’t have happened if the same oil had been flowing below ground through thick-walled, electronically monitored pipes. Human error appears to have played a large role in the train catastrophe. Pipelines have no brakes that need setting and generally fewer parts that someone can foul up.

Even if one views petroleum as evil, there are greater and lesser evils in the way it is moved to market. A Sierra Club leader struck an uncharacteristic note of self-doubt last May in the Oregonian: “We’re realizing that our success in stopping pipelines is shifting transport to rails.”

As the railroad industry has been quick to point out, trains are — statistically — exceptionally safe. The percentage of trips with mishaps is minuscule.

But minuscules add up. What happened in Quebec was undoubtedly freakish, but Washington officials and the people who intend to move Bakken crude through this state had better make sure that the lightning doesn’t strike twice.

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