Opinion Columns & Blogs

‘Bomb trains’ are dangerous waiting game

An oil train burns near the Oregon town of Mosier after derailing Friday, June 3.
An oil train burns near the Oregon town of Mosier after derailing Friday, June 3. Seattle Times

Last week the Washington Department of Ecology held its first public hearing on oil shipment safety rules. Coincidentally, just as the meeting was wrapping up in Vancouver, a Union Pacific train carrying highly flammable crude oil derailed about 75 miles away, in the Columbia River Gorge, near the town of Mosier, Oregon.

The fiery wreck should be a wake-up call for our region, and not just because its cargo was bound for Tacoma. Crude-by-rail is a big part of the Northwest’s energy economy. In 2014, 988 oil-laden trains traveled through Washington; if proposed facilities are fully built out and the export continues, 7,124 such trains could move through the state annually by 2020.

With so much oil moving through the Pacific Northwest’s railway corridor, people are asking when, not if, we will experience a fatal train accident.

Fortunately, no one in Mosier was hurt or killed, unlike what happened three years ago in Lac-Megnantic, Quebec. An oil train with 72 tankers carrying 30,000 gallons of crude oil careened into the small town and exploded, killing 42 people.

Accidents like this prove that when oil trains derail they can spill catastrophic volumes of flammable crude, self-ignite, and instantly incinerate whole city blocks. It’s why the rail cars are sometimes referred to as “bomb trains.”

Maia Bellon, Washington’s Ecology director, worries about the state’s ability to handle an oil train disaster. Most fire departments don’t have equipment to handle even a small incident.

“We’re doing trainings; we’re doing drill responses, but quite frankly, I’m worried about the budget to do that,” Bellon said in a recent interview, adding that “the response program at the Department of Ecology is based on the value of a barrel of oil, which is very low right now.”

The fire department in Mosier is an example of inadequate preparation. It consists of one paid staffer and 18 volunteers. Last week’s wreck required the help of 15 fire departments working through the night to put the fire out.

When it comes to industry safety standards, states have narrow authority. Except for railroad crossings, most responsibility falls to federal transportation officials. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, has frequently sounded the alarm. In 2015, she introduced the Crude-By-Rail-Safety Act.

The proposal calls for rigorous safety regulations and to halt the use of older model tank cars, but even with tightened standards, old cars intermingle with newer models. The transition to get them off railways could take years.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have called for a temporary moratorium, saying it’s too soon to let more oil trains through. Cantwell also met with Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and asked for an interim rule lowering the volatility of crude oil.

On Monday, Union Pacific said it would temporarily suspend moving oil trains through the Columbia River Gorge. A preliminary report faults the track for the wreck.

When the political smoke clears, oil trains will be back. They’ll move through urban areas and neighborhoods, pass stadiums, schools and near light-rail transportation systems. This means the pressure for improved industry standards, and adequate training and equipment to handle a potential disaster, must be loud and consistent.

The truth is, as long as there is demand for oil, there will be oil trains. The number of carloads of crude traveling in the U.S. doubled from 2010 to 2011. By 2012, the number tripled.

There’s only one reason for the increase: demand. To see the reason for that, most of us need only find the nearest mirror and point.