The ‘Traveling Bombs’ That Could Devastate A Major American City

SPOKANE, WASHINGTON — Railroads made this eastern Washington city a commercial powerhouse in the inland Northwest. First, in 1881, came the Northern Pacific, followed by the Union Pacific, the Great Northern and other lesser known lines. Even today, freight trains rumble through the downtown and over the Spokane River and Interstate 90 throughout the day and night.

But with a spate of recent fiery, and even deadly, accidents involving trains carrying crude oil from the booming Bakken oil field in North Dakota and Montana, railroad traffic here is increasingly being viewed as a threat rather than a blessing.

Only one or two oil trains a day now come through Spokane, where the tracks parallel the river for long stretches, cross over it, and run straight through the downtown core — not far from hospitals, schools, businesses and residential neighborhoods. But plans to expand or construct nearly a dozen oil by rail projects on the West Coast could soon bring as many as 11 fully loaded oil trains a day through Spokane, carrying Bakken crude to refineries or shipping terminals to the west, and then returning empty to North Dakota.

The biggest oil by rail terminal in the Pacific Northwest is being planned for the port of Vancouver, Washington. That facility would move as much as 360,000 barrels a day off trains and onto ships for transport to refineries along the West Coast. If all of the proposed projects are built, they could handle nearly 800,000 barrels a day, only slightly less than the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

That prospect is a constant gnawing worry for Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart, who compares oil trains to “traveling bombs” moving through the nation’s cities and towns.

“From a safety point of view, it’s a huge issue,” he said during a recent tour and interview here. “They are highly explosive and the tank cars were designed in 1964. They blow up if there is a crash.”

Stuckart is hardly alone in his concern. Spokane, the local Spokesman-Review newspaper said in an editorial, “is as vulnerable a city as any in the country.”

Recent fiery derailments of oil trains carrying Bakken crude have underscored the dangers, not just here, but in communities large and small across the U.S. and Canada. States and cities around the nation are now scrambling for ways that they can both better prepare for possible accidents and pressure federal regulators to tighten oversight of the railroad and energy industries to make rail transportation of oil safer.

Last July, a runaway oil train exploded in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic, killing 47 people and destroying about half of the town center. In early January, a 104-car oil train struck another train in Casselton, North Dakota, sending fireballs high into the sky as one car after another exploded. Another fiery derailment occurred in Alabama in November.

The troubling string of accidents has prompted federal regulators to issue extraordinary warnings in recent weeks against a backdrop of a big surge in shipments of oil by rail, which now total about 400,000 carloads a year. In early January, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert warning of the “significant fire risk” posed by Bakken crude. “[R]ecent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil,” the agency wrote.

Production in the Bakken has recently passed one million barrels a day, and as much as 90 percent of production is expected to move by rail in 2014.

On January 23, the National Transportation Safety board, in concert with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, warned that “a major loss of life” could come from an oil train accident and recommended specific safety measures, including routing trains around major population centers and ensuring that hazardous train cargo is properly classified.

Though they have little influence over a rail industry that is federally regulated, city and state officials in several areas are pushing local measures to bolster protections against accidents, while simultaneously calling for tougher federal oversight and faster adoption of new federal rules requiring safer rail cars. It is estimated that retrofitting the tens of thousands of existing cars that are prone to rupture in derailments would cost $1 billion.

Two weeks ago, legislators in Washington state held a hearing on a bill that would force rail companies to disclose to the state on a weekly basis detailed information on oil shipments, including routes, amounts, and the type of oil. A separate measure in the legislature asks Congress to impose tougher safety standards on rail tankers and to require some 92,000 existing cars be upgraded or phased out of service.

Stuckart pushed a similar measure in the Spokane City Council, a resolution that urges federal regulators to beef up rail safety, create a transparent system that will allow local governments and first responders to track hazardous fuel shipments, and that impacts in Spokane be part of any environmental reviews of projects that will boost oil by rail traffic there. The full council unanimously approved the measure on Monday night.

Recalling an incident in 1991 when two rail cars full of hay derailed not far from downtown and plunged onto Interstate 90, council member Jon Snyder said, “It was the perfect thing to be in a derailed train car. We may not be so lucky next time.”

Jace Bylenga, a Sierra Club representative based in Spokane, says the city could see an even bigger spike in oil train traffic if Congress moves to lift a longstanding ban on exporting U.S. oil abroad. With about 50 trains a day coming through now carrying coal, agricultural commodities and timber, Bylenga said, “we are pretty much at capacity” and additional traffic will “clog our rail lines.”

Spokane is far from the only U.S. city faced with the threat of oil train accidents. Expressions of concern are coming from far and wide.

North Dakota’s two U.S. Senators, John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp, both strong supporters of the oil industry in their state, have pushed the Department of Transportation to expedite new safety standards for oil tankers. Their intervention came after the December derailment in Casselton, North Dakota that spilled 400,000 tons of crude and caused evacuations but no casualties. “We are concerned that unless DOT provides guidance sooner, the timeline will be too long for industry to transition to newer, safe tanker cars in a timely way,” Hoeven said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, speaking at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, DC on January 25, proposed a fee on hazardous materials freight to fund investments in railroad safety, offset costs to first responders in accidents, and to provide funds to communities impacted by rail accidents.

Amid mounting concern about the volatility of Bakken crude and why it explodes and catches fire more easily than other crudes, as well as questions of whether hydraulic fracturing chemicals are corroding tank cars, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) have asked the departments of energy and transportation to probe a range of questions about the Bakken crude and the need for special precautions and safety requirements.

In New York, Gov. Mario Cuomo recently signed an executive order directing five state agencies to beef up their oversight of oil trains traveling in the state. State officials have already pushed the federal government to replace aging tank cars, for better testing of crude oil flammability properties and pre-position spill clean up equipment. “The safety of our communities, our residents and our natural resources must be the highest priority and we cannot afford to wait for a catastrophic accident to assess and reform the way this crude oil is transported through our State,” Cuomo said. Oil train traffic in the state has been mounting quickly, and a port in Albany has the capacity to ship three billion gallons a year.

In Spokane, the concern is not just for public safety, but also for the city’s namesake river and the environment.

Forty years ago, Spokane was host to Expo 74, the first world’s fair with an environmental theme. City fathers and boosters brought the fair here in hopes it would help revitalize Spokane’s riverfront and downtown, and gave the event an optimistic slogan: “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.”

Four decades later, the environment in Spokane is certainly fresher. The Spokane River has been cleaned up, the downtown is no longer a seedy afterthought amid suburban sprawl, and the river and its Riverfront Park is a hub of activity drawing tourists and locals alike. Here where World’s Fair pavilions once introduced the world to the IMAX movie theater, Riverfront Park is at the center of big events like the city’s annual Lilac Festival, the Bloomsday road race that draws up to 50,000 runners, and Hoopfest, which bills itself as “the biggest 3-on-3 basketball tournament on the planet” and draws a quarter million players and fans.

Bart Mihailovich, a local activist who serves as a “riverkeeper,” or watchdog over the Spokane River, says the river “is invaluable to the city,” a boon to business, economic development, recreation and tourism.

Oil trains, he said, pose a threat to that commercial and environmental progress. “An accident or derailment along the river would be awful.”

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