As concerns grow about rail shipments of crude oil, Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council have passed resolutions calling for better federal regulations, and environmental groups have made a perhaps belated request for more scrutiny at the county level.
BP Cherry Point Refinery got its first trainload of North Dakota crude oil on Dec. 26, and has received several shipments since then, using the BNSF rail line through Bellingham and Ferndale. To the south, the smaller Phillips 66 refinery has broken ground for its own rail terminal.
Both projects got relatively fast-track treatment from the Whatcom County Planning Department, but that was before exploding crude oil cars killed 47 people in a Quebec town in July 2013, and before two other oil trains derailed and exploded, without killing anyone, in North Dakota and Alabama.
On Jan. 2, 2014, in the wake of the three explosions, 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."
Since the Whatcom County oil train projects got their permits, the safety of the tank cars themselves also has become an issue. Much of the crude oil is being shipped out of North Dakota in general-purpose tank cars that even industry groups acknowledge should be replaced with cars better able to withstand rupture on impact. But manufacturing enough newer, safer cars to handle the sudden boom in Bakken crude oil could take years.
The good news is that BP already has 400 newer, safer cars leased for service to Cherry Point, but BP spokesman Bill Kidd acknowledged that some of the older tank cars also may be in use at times.
Terry Wechsler, a co-founder of a group called Protect Whatcom, said few people were aware of the full extent of risks when Whatcom County Planning Manager Tyler Schroeder ruled that both projects qualified for a "mitigated determination of non-significance." That gave both projects a green light to proceed without the detailed analysis of environmental impacts that SSA Marine's proposed Cherry Point coal terminal is now getting.
The volume of crude oil train traffic is much less than what is expected if the coal terminal is built: a yearly average of one oil train per day for BP and a train every other day for Phillips 66. Schroeder determined that the impact from the relatively small number of additional trains to the refineries did not require extensive environmental study. He also determined that the refineries would have to come back to the county for additional review if crude oil train traffic exceeds those levels.
Wechsler and representatives of Friends of the Earth, the local chapter of League of Women Voters and Safeguard the South Fork have sent a letter to Schroeder and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws asking that the county revoke its earlier finding of low impact for the oil train projects. Wechsler thinks everything should be put on hold until a full environmental impact statement process can be completed.
"Ideally they would pull the permits," Wechsler said. "There certainly is enough new information, I believe, to justify the action."
Schroeder said county officials are preparing a response to the letter from the groups, but that may take a few days.
Washington Department of Ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent said her agency is also reviewing the matter, but the state agency has no legal authority to roll back the county's earlier rulings on the oil train terminals at this late stage.
BP's Kidd said company officials share safety concerns, and BP followed the law in applying for and receiving permits for its crude oil rail terminal.
"We want to operate in a safe fashion for every product that we touch," Kidd said, adding that everyone involved in rail shipment of crude oil is awaiting regulatory guidance from federal agencies.
"There's an awful lot going on in the world of crude-by-rail safety right now," Kidd said. "We're as interested in that as anyone else is."
Earlier this week, the city and county councils unanimously approved resolutions calling upon the industry and on federal agencies to upgrade tank cars as soon as possible, replacing older cars with better ones or retrofitting the older cars to make them as safe as the new ones.
The resolutions note that the volume of crude oil shipped by American rail amounted to 9,500 tank cars in 2008. By 2013 the total had risen to 400,000, and that volume is believed to be growing.