Whatcom County environmentalists want to monitor oil trains

An oil train travels along Roeder Avenue in downtown Bellingham on Sept. 22, 2014.
An oil train travels along Roeder Avenue in downtown Bellingham on Sept. 22, 2014. The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County environmentalists want to step in as watchdogs and keep tabs on the trains rolling through their backyards.

For a few months, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities staff members have asked people who are interested in environmental activism if they own property near the tracks, and if they’d be willing to host a camera there to document train movements.

All the details of the project are not hammered out yet, but the basic premise is to gather proof of oil trains coming and going through Whatcom County and double check it against reports required at the state and federal level, said Matt Petryni, clean energy program manager at RE Sources.

RE Sources board president Barry Wenger mentioned the “train-spotting” program to the audience at a packed oil train forum Thursday night, July 9, at the Bellingham Central Library.

The subject came up during a question-and-answer period, after someone asked if first responders were now allowed to get information about oil trains before they roll through the state.

Through a new state law, facilities that receive crude oil by train — e.g. BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66 Ferndale refineries — need to give the state Department of Ecology advance notice before oil is transferred there. Those facilities already were required to give that notice for marine transfers.

Emergency responders have permission to request that information under the new law, and Ecology is supposed to publish the aggregated information for the public on a quarterly basis, which is not as often as some would prefer. The railroads have said that providing information on oil trains in real time could be a safety risk and is proprietary information.

“This is where our government has totally failed us,” Wenger, who worked at Ecology for more than 20 years, told the audience. “This is absolute nonsense. We’re not trying to find hummingbirds that are coming into the country here. These are gigantic oil and coal trains. You can’t miss ’em. They’re even labeled with what’s in ’em.”

RE Sources plans to put cameras along the rail line if they get enough volunteers who have property there. They might be webcams with live feeds, or there could be a motion trigger to capture images only when a train is going by, Petryni said.

BP Cherry Point is permitted to receive an average of one train loaded with crude oil per day, and Phillips 66 can get one every other day.

Currently, some people on Twitter use the hashtag #WAoiltrainwatch to document when they see an oil train rolling through various parts of the state, but many haven’t included photos, and days can pass between tweets.

“It’s not a solid record in the way we would want it,” Petryni said. “We want to know if (the refineries) are exceeding their limit. I don’t think they are, but it would be an added watchdog means of enforcement of their limits.”

For now, RE Sources will continue looking for properties, and likely focus on those along the spur lines to BP Cherry Point and Phillips 66, then move on to figure out exactly what equipment to use, he said.

“I don’t think it’d be super-complicated cameras. It’d be like webcams,” Petryni said. “We have a handful of people so far. ... Once we have 20 or 30, we will go to the locations and see which ones might be the best.”

The project is not a very high priority for the organization at the moment but is in the works.

Thursday’s forum, hosted by ForestEthics and RE Sources, was part of a week of oil-train action events around the country during the week of the two-year anniversary of a deadly oil-train explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.

The audience heard from Laura Skelton, executive director of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility; Rebecca Ponzio, oil campaign director for Washington Environmental Council; and Steve Garey, the past-president of United Steel Workers Local 12-591, which represents workers at the nearby Shell, Tesoro and Phillips 66 refineries.

They covered topics ranging from the health impacts of oil transportation to reducing fossil fuel use through legislation and changes in transportation modes. They also talked about getting involved in the public review processes for several proposed oil terminals in the state and supporting worker safety.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.