BELLINGHAM - With trainloads of Bakken crude oil already rolling through the heart of the city to the BP Cherry Point refinery, Mayor Kelli Linville will ask City Council to approve a resolution calling on state and federal officials to do everything they can to promote safety.
On Jan. 2, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a warning that the crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken fields "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude." That warning came three days after a BNSF Railway Co. oil train collided with a grain train near the town of Casselton, N.D. and exploded.
Linville said she was troubled to learn that regulators and the rail industry acknowledge the need to replace tens of thousands of tank cars pressed into service to handle the Bakken oil boom. The Railway Supply Institute, an industry group, has proposed a 10-year timeline for making the estimated $1 billion investment in new rail cars that would be more resistant to rupture and explosion if trains derail.
"We would like to see improvements in tanker cars happen as soon as possible, before we have something like that (explosion) happen in Whatcom County," Linville said. "I don't think that we can afford to do it over 10 years."
BP spokeswoman Pam Brady had good news on that front. She said her company is already using the newer, safer generation of tank cars for the run to Cherry Point.
"BP has leased 400 new railcars which will be dedicated to this facility," Brady said in an email. "The new rail cars meet the new recommended standard proposed by DOT. These are newly designed and incorporate higher-grade steel, shielding for the tank heads and rollover protection."
But she acknowledged that there was still a possibility that older, riskier cars might be used at times on the Bakken-to-Cherry Point run.
Brady said the BP refinery got its first rail shipment of Bakken crude oil on Dec. 26, and has a permit to accept one such train per day. Brady said the trains are not arriving daily at this point but said they are arriving "fairly regularly."
Farther south, the smaller Phillips 66 refinery is constructing its own crude oil train terminal.
"We are in the site preparation stage - grading and leveling property in preparation for construction," Phillips spokesman Jeff Callender said in an email. "We expect our facility to be operational by the end of this year."
Callender had no immediate word on the type of tank car that would be used.
Spokesmen for both local refineries have said the Bakken crude enables them to augment their supplies of Alaskan crude, as fields in that state grow less productive.
At the southern edge of the city, the BNSF main line crosses environmentally sensitive Chuckanut Bay and rolls close to the city sewage treatment plant, several industrial buildings and the Alaska ferry terminal. It then goes under the balconies of houses, apartments and condos and the Chrysalis Hotel, built to take advantage of waterfront views. The rail line also skirts the edge of Boulevard Park, which is crammed with people on sunny days. Farther north, the rail line is a near neighbor to the Old Town area, Eldridge Avenue homes, Port of Bellingham offices, Squalicum Harbor and Bellingham Cold Storage, among many other things.
North of Bellingham, the rail line is no more than the width of a football field away from Ferndale High School - including the grandstand at the high school's football field.