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Bainbridge Island Review Guest Opinion: Why I blockaded an oil train

Repost from the Bainbridge Island Review

GUEST OPINION: Why I blockaded an oil train


On Monday, July 28, I joined Jan Woodruff of Anacortes and Adam Gaya of Seattle in locking ourselves to barrels full of concrete on the rail spur into the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes in order to keep an oil train from leaving the refinery.

Why would a 62-year-old retired lawyer and long-time resident of Bainbridge Island take such a drastic action?

The short answer is: I could not do otherwise.

This kind of resistance may seem extreme, but these are extreme times — these oil trains present an imminent threat to the lives and safety of tens of thousands of our friends and neighbors, and our politicians have done a woefully inadequate job of addressing this.

The puncture-prone DOT-111 tanker cars were deemed “inadequate” by federal authorities more than 20 years ago. Yet every week, more than a dozen of these trains travel through downtown Seattle to refineries including Tesoro.

These trains are carrying Bakken shale crude, which the DOT has warned is unusually volatile and can catch fire at temperatures as low as 75 degrees F!

There have been very frequent derailments, including one in Seattle last week (headed for the Tesoro refinery), which occurred despite a train speed of only 5 miles per hour. Had it been going much faster, the results would likely have been catastrophic.

There have been five explosions and massive fires associated with derailments within the past year, the worst being at Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a derailment caused a massive explosion, leveling several city blocks and vaporizing 47 people. If this happens in Seattle near the sports stadiums during a Seahawks or Mariners game, tens of thousands of people will die a horrific death.

Tesoro had a terrible safety record even before the huge increase in oil-by-rail.

After its tragic 2010 fire, which killed seven workers, it was found to have committed 39 “willful” and five “serious” violations of safety regulations.

Tesoro is planning to build the massive Tesoro Savage Vancouver Oil Terminal, a project so fraught with potential problems that the Vancouver City Council has asked Governor Inslee to reject it.

The United States Supreme Court, in its questionable wisdom, has declared corporations to be “persons” with human rights. If Tesoro and the other oil companies trying to turn our beautiful state of Washington into the Bakken shale oil dealer to the world are “persons” it is terribly clear to me what sort of “persons” they are: psychopaths — lacking all conscience or empathy. If any other group of people exposed us to such risks, they’d be locked up as the criminals they are. Instead, we get cheap bromides about “safe fracking,” while wells across the country are poisoned and billions of gallons of water in drought-stricken California are ruined: all for cheap dirty energy, in an era when the ravages of climate change are becoming increasingly visible.

The fires in Washington last week were one small sample of ominous things to come. In under a week of the official fire season, more area was burned than in any full year of the past decade. If we do not take drastic measures to address climate change immediately, our children and grandchildren will have to live through the collapse of our civilization within decades. I cannot live with that on my conscience.

And what has our political leadership offered to address these issues? Feeble and half-hearted actions such as the federal plan to “phase out” the most unsafe oil-by-rail cars over the next four years.

In four years we are certain to have more disasters and more deaths — such a plan is criminally negligent and absolutely unacceptable.

We need a total ban on all shipment of Bakken crude by rail NOW, and a complete halt to the development of any new oil terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

The oil companies have no sense of responsibility to anything but their bottom lines. Companies that make decisions like this have no place doing business on our increasingly fragile planet, and we the people of the state of Washington have to draw the line.

Annette Klapstein is a Bainbridge Island resident and a retired attorney who worked for the Puyallup Indian Tribe for 21 years, primarily on fisheries issues.

    Time Magazine: A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

    Repost from Time Magazine
    [Editor: The message is getting out far and wide with this mainstream publication’s observance of the one-year anniversary of the killer wreck in Lac-Mégantic.  An intensely personal account of what it is like to live near these rolling “bomb trains.”  – RS]

    A Year After a Deadly Disaster, Fears Grow About the Danger of Crude Oil Shipped By Rail

    Sebastien Malo, July 10, 2014

    When 21-year-old mother Kahdejah Johnson was told two years ago that she’d secured a spot at the Ezra Prentice Homes, a quiet housing project in Albany, she felt confident she’d found a stable home to raise her newborn son. With its manicured lawns and tidy beige row houses, the Ezra Prentice Homes are a far cry from the crumbling housing projects of large cities. “When people come into town they’re like ‘These are your projects? These are condos!’” says Johnson.

    But today, Johnson is losing sleep over how close her house is to railroad tracks congested, day and night, with tanker cars carrying crude oil, visible just outside her bedroom window. The fear of an accident is so great that Johnson has taken to evacuating her apartment some nights, to spend the night at her mother’s home, further from the tracks. “Now I’m afraid to be in my own home,” she says. “Do you know how fast we could die here?”

    Albany is one of a growing number of cities where residents like Johnson fear the devastating consequences of accidents involving railcars filled with crude oil. They have reason to fear—on July 6, 2013, a train carrying oil derailed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, causing an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and killed more than 40 people. This past Sunday, Johnson and other Albany residents held a vigil to commemorate the Lac-Megantic derailment—and draw attention to the growing opposition to transporting crude oil by rail

    “Jo-Annie Lapointe, Melissa Roy, Maxime Dubois, Joanie Turmel,” participants in the vigil intoned into a microphone, naming Lac-Megantic residents killed in the explosions. In a line, they held portraits of each of the deceased and read their names, pinning the pictures to a black metal fence. “You may not say that they lived right next door to you, but they were your neighbors,” said Pastor McKinley Johnson, who officiated part of the ceremony. “You may not say that you understand all the language, but they’re your sister and your brother.”

    As in Lac-Megantic, oil tankers containing highly flammable crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana roll right through their residential areas. Rows of train-cars filled with crude oil often stand idle for hours on the tracks that hug the curves of the housing project, so tightly only 15 feet at most separate the two in some areas. “Once I found out that these are the same tanks that were in Canada, I was like ‘Oh my God, someone pray for us, We’re in danger’,” Johnson said.

    This fear is a consequence of the unconventional oil boom in states like North Dakota, where for the last several years producers have been using hydrofracking techniques to pump oil previously locked in underground shale rock. The new oil fields have helped America’s oil production rise to a 28-year high. But that crude oil has to get to refineries, most of which are located in coastal cities—and much of that oil is moving by rail. Nationally, transport of crude oil by train has jumped 45-fold between 2008 and 2013, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

    While the U.S. has yet to experience a rail catastrophe on the scale of Lac-Megantic, the country has had its share of close calls. The National Transportation Safety Board counts five “significant accidents” of trains containing crude oil in the United States in the past year alone. The latest, in Lynchburg, Virginia, saw a train carrying crude Bakken oil derail and burst into flames in the town’s center this April, producing black plumes of smoke and billows of flames taller than buildings nearby. The crude oil also spilled into the James River, though one was injured.

    The worrying trend has opened a new front to the national environmental debate. Some 40 cities and towns across the country scheduled similar events to mark Lac-Megantic’s one-year anniversary. Many of the rallies will take place in the usual hotbeds of environmental activism —in places like Seattle and Portland—but also in blue-collar tows like Philadelphia and Detroit, where activists will voice demands ranging from a moratorium on oil-trains traffic to increased safety controls.

    But the problem has also presented environmentalists with a conundrum. One of the factors behind the rapid rise of railroad shipment of crude oil has been the shortage of oil pipelines, which could move greater quantities of oil from landlocked states to coastal refineries. Front and center to this debate is the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project, which would connect the oil sands of western Canada to the Gulf Coast, but which President Obama has yet to approve—in part because of objections raised by environmentalists, who fear the potential for a spill.

    Fewer pipelines has meant more oil moved via rail. “If Keystone had been built we wouldn’t be moving nearly the volume of oil that we’re moving by rail,” said Charles Ebinger, the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

    That has exposed the Keystone’s opponents to criticism that by standing in the way of pipeline projects, they are raising the risk of rail accidents. Though hazardous material like crude oil makes its way safely via rail 99.998 percent of the time, according to the Association of American Railroads, a plethora of research suggests that pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents, personal injuries and fatalities than rail. That includes an authoritative environmental review the State Department released last January, which concluded that “there is… a greater potential for injuries and fatalities associated with rail transport relative to pipelines.”

    Still, environmentalists like Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics, the group coordinating the string of events to commemorate the Lac-Megantic tragedy, reject that dichotomy. “The industry is trying to present Americans with a false choice between pipelines and rails,” he says. “We want to choose clean energy.”

    Back in Albany, the vigil was deemed a success, drawing a crowd of about a hundred. But Kahdejah Johnson wasn’t among them. Why not? Her fear, she said, got the best of her. “Honestly, I don’t really hang by my house,” she said. “I don’t like to be in that area if I don’t have to be there.” She is now on a waiting list to be transferred to another development—something she’s told could take up to four years. In the meantime, the trains will keep rolling.