Tag Archives: Puget Sound

Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy

Repost from The Center for Investigative Reporting and KUOW.org
[Editor:  This is an important report.  State regulators can’t get accurate oil train data from the federally regulated railroads, so Washington officials are turning to the refineries: “Washington state lawmakers passed a law recently that requires oil refineries, which are state regulated, to give weekly notice of the train schedule to first responders.”  (See previous report.)  The story of Dean Smith’s Train Watch is inspiring – we should set up annual counts in all of our frontline refinery communities.  – RS]

Growing oil train traffic is shrouded in secrecy

By Ashley Ahearn / June 13, 2015
Dean Smith was frustrated with the lack of public information about oil train traffic so he organized 30 volunteers to count the trains coming through his community north of Seattle. Credit: Ashley Ahearn/EarthFix/KUOW

EVERETT, Wash. – Dean Smith, 72, sits in his car by the train tracks here north of Seattle.

It’s a dark, rainy Tuesday night, and Smith waits for an oil train to come through town. These trains are distinctive: A mile long, they haul 100 or so black, pill-shaped cars that each carry 30,000 gallons of crude oil.

Smith has been counting the trains for about a year, noting each one on a website he built. The former National Security Agency employee does it because the railroads share little information about oil train traffic with Washington state. They don’t have to because they’re federally regulated.

What is known: The railroads are moving 40 times more oil now than in 2008 due to an oil boom in the Bakken formation of North Dakota. Bakken crude oil contains high concentrations of volatile gas, with a flashpoint as low as 74 degrees Fahrenheit.

Derailments and explosions have occurred around North America since the oil boom began, including a 2013 catastrophe that killed 47 people in rural Quebec.

This has prompted emergency responders to call for more information from railroad companies about oil train traffic patterns and volumes. The railroads mostly have refused; they say that releasing that information could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Which is why Smith decided to find out for himself. “It’s pretty hard to hide an oil train,” he said with a chuckle.

Last year, Smith launched the first Snohomish County Train Watch. He organized 30 volunteers to take shifts counting trains around the clock for a week.

In their first week of watching oil trains, the group collected more information about oil train traffic than the railroads had given Washington in the three years the trains have come here.

State officials say Smith’s data is helpful but insufficient. They say they shouldn’t have to rely on citizen volunteers to get critical information in case of disaster.

Dave Byers, the head of spill response for the state’s Department of Ecology, said his team needs the information to plan area-specific response plans to protect the public and keep oil from getting into the environment.

“It gives us an idea of what the risk is, the routes that are taken,” Byers said. “The frequency and volume of oil really gives us an idea of what level of preparedness we need to be ready for in Washington state.”

Oil train traffic shows no signs of slowing, which adds to the state’s sense of urgency. The oil industry wants to build five new terminals in Washington to move crude oil off trains and onto ships.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to lift a federal ban on exporting crude oil that’s been in place since 1975 – allowing American crude to be shipped around the world.

Close call in Seattle

Anyone who has attended a Mariners baseball game in downtown Seattle likely has seen or heard oil trains passing the ballpark. The trains continue north through the city to refineries on Puget Sound.

Seattle had a close call last year when an oil train derailed near downtown.

Byers and his team weren’t notified for one and a half hours and initially were not told there was oil in the derailed train cars.

No oil was spilled, but Byers is critical of how BNSF Railway, the company that moves most of the oil out of the Bakken oil fields, handled the situation.

BNSF did not tell the state there was highly flammable Bakken crude oil in the derailed train cars – that information came five hours later from the oil refinery waiting for the train. Additionally, Byers said that when his team arrived on the scene, no BNSF representative was present, but welders were working on the derailed cars. The welders said they did not know what was inside.

We became concerned because people were wandering off the street and taking selfies of themselves next to the rail cars,” Byers said. “There was no preparing for the potential that one of those cars could actually start leaking.”

BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said in an emailed statement that BNSF Railway had its hazardous materials team quickly in place to evaluate the situation. “This derailment did not cause a release at any point, nor was there a threat of a release,” she said.

The state and BNSF Railway have sparred over the railroad company’s reports of hazardous materials spills. Earlier this year, state regulators released an investigation and recommended that BNSF be fined up to $700,000 for not quickly reporting these spills. The company has disputed the state’s findings. A final decision is expected next year.

Concern in Anacortes

Workers prepare oil trains for unloading at the Tesoro refinery north of Seattle. The train that derailed in Seattle on July 24, 2014, was bound for the refinery.

This spring, several hundred people packed into the Anacortes City Hall for information from oil companies and BNSF Railway about the oil trains moving through their community. Just that morning, a BNSF oil train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota.

In northern Puget Sound, Anacortes is home to two refineries that receive oil by rail from North Dakota. Its residents, like others in small communities along the tracks in Washington state, have voiced concern about oil trains. Congestion woes are among their complaints; unlike Seattle, where the trains mostly pass through tunnels and over bridges, trains here disrupt traffic.

Audience members were allowed to submit written questions only. Oil refineries’ representatives told them about safety precautions at their facilities to prevent and respond to spills. They also talked about their commitment to getting newer oil train cars.

Courtney Wallace is a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway. The company believes that every derailment or accident is avoidable. On the day this photo was taken, a train had derailed and caught fire in North Dakota. It was carrying the same type of crude oil that is currently moving through Washington state.

Wallace, the BNSF spokeswoman, gave a presentation about the company’s commitment to safety. She said BNSF believes that every accident is preventable.

When pressed by a reporter about how much information BNSF shares with local emergency responders, Wallace said BNSF has “always provided information to first responders, emergency managers about what historically has moved through their towns.”

She cautioned that sharing regular updates or notifications of oil train movements could put the public at risk.

“We’re always cognizant of what information is shared, because we don’t want to see an incident that involves terrorism or anyone else who might have that kind of frame of mind,” Wallace said.

Fight for information

A federal emergency order demands that railroads share limited information with states – but state officials want more.

Washington state lawmakers passed a law recently that requires oil refineries, which are state regulated, to give weekly notice of the train schedule to first responders. 

Washington state Rep. Jessyn Farrell is a Democrat who has fought for legislation that would force oil refineries to share information about how much oil is arriving by rail.

State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Seattle Democrat who sponsored the bill, said BNSF and the oil industry opposed the legislation from the beginning.

“We’re going to get the information,” she said. “I don’t really care who gives it to us as long as it’s good information and it stands in court, because we need that information now.”

BNSF Railway spent more than $300,000 on lobbyists and political contributions in Washington state in 2014.

“I think they’re absolutely on the wrong side of this,” Farrell said. “In the public mind, and morally, they are absolutely wrong.”

BNSF’s Wallace said the company still is reviewing the law to see how federal regulatory authority will interact with state authority.

Back in Everett, Dean Smith said he isn’t waiting for politicians or lawyers to duke this one out.

Instead, he’ll wait for trains, he said, and he’ll continue gathering information about them.

Four hours into a recent train-watching shift, Smith perked up.

“There’s something coming,” he said. He opened the door of his Chevy Volt and stepped into the rain. An orange BNSF engine emerged from the tunnel. Behind it were oil cars – about 100 of them, black as night.

The streetlight reflected off Smith’s glasses and shadows gathered in the furrow of his brow as he stood by the tracks, shoulders hunched.

“Sometimes I wonder, why fight it? Why not just move? That’d be the easiest thing to do,” he said. “But I think we have to fight. And I would like to see citizens groups acting like this all over the country. That’s the form of checks and balances we can create. All it takes is a few people.”

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    Oil, gas, coal industries want Washington, British Columbia as permanent home ports

    Repost from SeattlePI
    [Editor: Note that at the time of this posting, the link to SeattlePI is ok, but it carries an advertisement at top promoting Energy East Pipeline –  a project to bring nasty Western Canadian tar sands oil to Eastern Canada.  Supposedly all the “facts” and “benefits” of this tar sands disaster.  Ironic, eh?  – RS]

    Oil, gas, coal industries want Washington, British Columbia as permanent home ports

    By Joel Connelly, June 4, 2015

    Shell’s exploration fleet is due to depart Seattle soon for the Arctic, but other energy industries are planning their own home ports up and down the West Coast, from the Columbia River to the Salish Sea to British Columbia’s North Coast.

    The public’s attention will wane at its peril.  Public understanding of the gains and pains of Big Oil and Big Coal’s plans for the Northwest is strongly advised.

    Spill response boats work to contain fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa, anchored on Burrard Inlet, Thursday, April 9, 2015, in Vancouver, British Columbia. The City of Vancouver warned that the fuel is toxic and should not be touched. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)

    The waters of Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the Inland Passage are fast becoming a chosen path for shipment of coal, liquid natural gas, and — if many in Congress have their way — oil to China and other fast-developing Asian markets.

    The drilling rigs Polar Pioneer and Noble Discoverer will almost certainly be in Alaskan waters when legal and administrative challenges to Shell Oil’s Seattle home port are heard in July.

    In recent months, the resistance to Shell has overshadowed the proposed oil train terminus in Vancouver, Washington, the coal port and refinery proposed for Longview, the growing number of oil trains through Seattle, and the enormous pipeline terminus and oil export port proposed just east of Vancouver, B.C.

    The invasion of the energy industry has drawn sporadic public attention. A crowd of 2,300 showed up for a Seattle meeting to scope out the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental studies of the proposed Gateway Pacific coal export terminal north of Bellingham.

    Ignored south of the border, more than 100 demonstrators were arrested last November at a park on Burnaby Mountain, just east of Vancouver, B.C. They were protesting sample drilling by a Houston company that wants to make Burnaby the terminus of a pipeline carrying Alberta tar sands oil.

    The proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline, beginning in Edmonton, has at least 890,000 barrels a day a higher capacity than the vastly more-publicized Keystone XL project in the Midwest.

    A sight that won't be stopped by sit-ins and City Council resolutions:  A coal train passes an oil train after tanker cars derailed in Magnolia this morning.  Oil and coal could become the Northwest's "supreme shipping commodities" crowding our trade dependent economy..

    The oil would not stay in British Columbia.  Thirty-four tankers a month would carry it through the international waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Haro Strait, the boundary between the U.S. San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands.

    Governments, on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, do not inspire public confidence.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation, in recent safety rules on oil trains, proposes to allow three years — THREE YEARS — for explosion-prone, 1964-vintage DOT-111 tanker cars to finally be off America’s railroad tracks.

    The USDOT is “laser focused” on safety, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.  Still, the DOT has sided with the railroads and rebuffed requests by first responders for full information on cargoes being carried from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through Puget Sound cities.

    “Because of the detailed and sensitive nature of the safety and security analysis information, the federal government requires that the information be treated as Sensitive Security information that cannot be publicly disclosed,” Foxx told Cantwell.

    Nor do the USDOT rules require removal of potentially explosive gases from tank cars carrying shipments of oil.

    The situation is even more alarming in Canada. The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to turn the Great White North into a global petro power.  And that means bringing Alberta oil to tidewater for export.

    Oil tanker cars derailed beneath the Magnolia Bridge in July of 2014.

    The National Energy Board of Canada (NEB) has approved (with conditions) an oil pipeline that would carry Alberta tar sands crude to an oil port at Kitimat, at the head of the long, treacherous Douglas Channel in northern British Columbia.

    The NEB is now considering the 890,000 barrels-a-day, $5.4 billion (Canadian) Kinder Morgan pipeline.  Vancouver and Burnaby are trying to get full information on environmental consequences. A major spill in Burrard Inlet could cost Vancouver as much as $1.25 billion.  However, the British Columbia government has barely intervened with the project.

    While watching hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs, American viewers have been exposed to pro-pipeline propaganda on Canadian TV.  The government promises “world class” marine safety.  A stud-muffin Kinder Morgan employee talks about how much he loves the out-of-doors.

    Don’t believe Canada’s claims for a New York minute.

    While pushing an oil port, the Harper government has shut down the Kitsilano Coast Guard Base in Vancouver and is in the process of closing the Coal Harbor marine traffic and communications center.  The oil would be routed to Burnaby, while Coast Guard operations are being moved to Victoria.

    The vast Alberta oil stands project, along with oil development in North Dakota, is outstripping the capacity of North America's pipelines.  Hence, oil is increasingly being moved by rail.  A disaster in Quebec raises questions for the Northwest. (Getty Images)

    The British Columbia government has its sights set on something else — development of huge liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals on the coast. The gas would be exported to China.

    An Indian band near Prince Rupert recently rejected a $1 billion, long-term deal to roll over and allow an LNG terminal.

    The B.C. government is more pliable.  It is pledging to freeze in place environmental and safety regulations for the duration of the LNG terminals’ operation.  It’s forging ahead with the big, nature-wrecking Site C hydro project on the Peace River to supply electricity to the LNG industry.

    So far, the most sustained resistance has come from Native American and Aboriginal First Nations tribes.

    The tribes have managed to unite across the border, understanding that disruption, oil spills and damage to natural resources will be felt on BOTH sides of the border.

    The Swinomish tribe is challenging Anacortes-bound oil trains, which cross its reservation, in federal courts. The Lummi Indians have steadfastly resisted Gateway Pacific.

    Newborn J51 with her mother J19 off San Juan Island. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, The Center for Whale Research.

    Up north, the Tsleil Wauth First Nation, with land on Burrard Inlet, fielded a study by experts.  It found there is a 37 percent chance of a spill of 100,000 barrels or more, which could kill between 100,000 and 500,000 sea and shorebirds.

    The basic point for residents of this much-envied corner of the Earth:

    Full, accurate information on the real and possible consequences of major energy projects is not going to come from government.

    Given the scope of the projects, two words of wisdom come immediately to mind: Question authority.

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      BIG WIN: Washington state judge denies Shell appeal on rail project review

      Repost from Reuters

      Washington state judge denies Shell appeal on rail project review

      HOUSTON | By Kristen Hays, May 21, 2015 11:34pm BST

      A judge on Thursday denied Royal Dutch Shell’s appeal of a ruling that a proposed oil-by-rail project at its Washington state refinery must undergo a full environmental review, just two weeks after a crude train derailment caused a fire in North Dakota.

      Shell had appealed a February ruling from a Skagit County Office of Land Use Hearings examiner that the plan to move 70,000 barrels per day of inland crude to its 145,000 bpd Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes must be comprehensively reviewed.

      In 2014, the county said the project did not need that much scrutiny to get a permit, prompting challenges from several environmental organizations.

      On Thursday, a Skagit County Superior Court judge denied Shell’s appeal, according to court officials.

      The denial came two weeks after an eastbound crude train derailed in North Dakota, the latest in a spate of fiery mishaps since 2013 that have stoked fears about moving oil by rail.

      Shell had sought to limit the review’s scope to exclude railroad issues overseen solely by federal regulators, but said it remains committed to working with the county and other agencies to finish the permitting process.

      Shell’s refining competitors in Washington have been bringing in U.S. crudes by rail since 2012 to displace more expensive imports and declining Alaskan oil output. Shell was the last to seek oil-by-rail permits in late 2013, but by then opponents had taken notice of train crashes and safety concerns.

      The rail issue is not Shell’s only concern in the state. The company also faces opponents to its plan to use the port city of Seattle to ready rigs before they travel to the Chukchi Sea off the north coast of Alaska.

      (Reporting By Kristen Hays. Editing by Andre Grenon)
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        NRDC Attorney: The tar sands invasion that can be stopped

        Repost from NRDC Switchboard, Danielle Droitsch’s Blog

        The tar sands invasion that can be stopped

        Danielle Droitsch
        Danielle Droitsch, senior attorney with NRDC, Canada Project Director, International Program.

        By Danielle Droitsch, April 28, 2015

        Many across the United States are aware of the tar sands threat posed by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline but what many may not know is the U.S. faces a looming threat that is bigger than just this one pipeline. We call it a tar sands invasion. The plan would be to complete a network of pipelines (both new and expanded), supertankers and barges, and a fleet of explosive railway tank cars. What is at risk? San Francisco Bay, Puget Sound, the Great Lakes, the Hudson River and other places we all call home. While the threat of this invasion is already here with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the good news is that citizens across North America are rising up to respond and repeal the assault with a clear message: Not by pipeline, not by rail, not by tanker. The good news is that public opposition to tar sands oil is rising and projects like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway have been delayed. The tar sands assault is not inevitable. In fact, the U.S. doesn’t need this dirty form of fuel and neither does Canada. The time has come to limit tar sands expansion in favor of a cleaner and brighter energy future.

        Tar Sands Invasion Map 4-27-15.jpg

        A new report released by NRDC reveals that the amount of tar sands crude moving into and through the North American West Coast could increase by more than 1.7 million barrels per day if industry proposals for pipelines, tankers and rail facilities move forward. For more information about this new information see posts by my colleagues Anthony Swift and Josh Axelrod. Why the west coast? With the majority of the world’s heavy oil refinery capacity, the United States including the west coast is a critical market for the tar sands industry. To be clear, Keystone XL still remains at the heart of the industry plan to expand tar sands and gain access to the global market. But industry is still pushing hard for other ways to expand especially as KXL flounders. It is important to keep in mind the tar sands industry – which currently produces about 2 million barrels per day (bpd) – plans to triple production to exceed 6 million bpd in the next fifteen years. The oil industry has made clear it needs all of its rail and pipeline proposals to achieve its massive production goals.

        We know that the tar sands industry and Canadian government has long had a plan to quadruple or more tar sands extraction in Canada. KXL has always been a huge part of that. But it is now very clear that they also plan to access the U.S. and global market through every means possible.

        This threatened invasion puts our communities, waters, air and climate in jeopardy. The Tar Sands Solutions Network has done an outstanding job outlining many of the different campaigns that are emerging across North America. This plan threatens to expose communities from California to New York to health, safety and environmental risks unless the public rallies to stop it. Here are some of the specific impacts that North America faces as a result of the tar sands invasion:

        • Across the West Coast, tar sands laden tanker and barge traffic could increase twenty-five fold, with a projected 2,000 vessels along the Pacific West Coast– including the Salish Sea and the Columbia River–shipping nearly two million barrels of tar sands crude every day.
        • A dozen proposed rail terminals would substantially increase tar sands by rail traffic going through densely populated American citizens like Los Angeles and Albany New York risking explosive derailments of hazardous crude unit trains
        • Nearly a million barrels of tar sands would be destined for California and Washington refineries, exposing fenceline communities in Anacortes, San Francisco and Los Angeles to increasing toxic air pollution.
        • In the Midwest, the pipeline company Enbridge is moving to nearly double the flow of tar sands moving through the Great Lakes region, an area that already has suffered from a 2010 spill of more than 800,000 gallons of the tar sands into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan sending hundreds of residents to the hospital. Four years later, the cleanup, which has cost more than $1 billion, is still unfinished.
        • On the East Coast, the tar sands industry is seeking to build the Energy East pipeline across Canada. The pipeline would run from Alberta east across Canada to New Brunswick and Quebec, carry 1.1 million barrels of tar sands oil per day and require hundreds of oil tankers traveling along the East Coast and Gulf Coast annually, through critical habitat of the extremely endangered Right Whale.
        • In Albany, New York, a proposed oil transfer facility could lead to the shipment of tar sands oil on barges down the Hudson River or rail cars along the river destined for facilities in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas.
        • In Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire, the constant threat of a proposed reversal of the aging Portland-Montreal Pipeline is likely to arise again as Enbridge completes work on a pipeline reversal that will connect the tar sands directly to Montreal this summer.
        • This network of pipelines will feed refineries that produce millions of tons of hazardous petroleum coke waste – known as “petcoke” – which are piling up in residential neighborhoods like Chicago.
        • In Canada, pipeline companies are trying to access the west and east costs with pipeline proposals that would ship the heavy tar sands oil across pristine landscapes in British Columbia or across the Prairies into Ontario and Quebec. Communities are raising concerns about the threat of a spill to waters from the pipeline or tankers leaving the Bay of Fundy of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
        • And last but not least, communities in Alberta at ground zero have been facing the enormous consequences of tar sands development which has brought about significant contamination of water, air, and land. Increasingly, there are calls for a moratorium on development.

        Targeting at risk communities

        The tar sands invasion puts a high toll on low-income and aboriginal communities located in railway corridors, near oil refineries, and next to petcoke waste sites. In refinery fence-line communities, emissions associated with tar sands are suspected to be even more detrimental to human health than existing harmful emissions from conventional crude. Derailments of tar sands unit trains – mile long trains carrying over a hundred tankers full of explosive tar sands crude – pose a catastrophic risk for communities throughout the country. And as more tar sands oil is refined in the United States, the public will also face increased health and environmental risks from massive piles of petroleum coke, a coal-like waste full of heavy metals that results from tar sands oil refining and can cause serious damage to the respiratory system.

        Industry would like for you to believe that tar sands development is inevitable and there is nothing that can be done. Wherever they turn today they are being faced with public opposition. Expansion is not inevitable, especially because of this growing and formidable opposition.

        A climate problem

        It is clear that tar sands reserves – some of the world’s most carbon intensive – are at the top of the list of reserves that must remain in the ground. Mounting scientific and economic analysis shows that the tar sands industry’s proposed expansion plan is incompatible with global efforts to address climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that 75% or more of discovered fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground in order to limit warming to the international two degrees Celsius goal. The clear inconsistency between tar sands expansion and efforts to address climate change have made opposition to tar sands expansion projects a clear rallying point for a broad group of allies advocating for action on climate.

        A water problem

        A tar sands spill from train, pipeline, or tanker could devastate local economies, pristine wilderness, harm human health, and lead to an especially costly and challenging cleanup. Tar sands spills have proven more damaging than conventional spills, as heavy tar sands bitumen sinks below the water surface making it difficult to contain or recover. A spill from shipping the tar sands crude could devastate communities, contaminate freshwater supplies or marine habitats and damaging local economies.

        Undermining efforts to grow our clean energy economy

        The growing exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands threatens to undermine North American efforts to build a clean energy economy and combat global climate change. Because most tar sands crude is destined for the United States, its expansion would create a greater dependence on the world’s dirtiest crude oil and undermine our transition to environmentally sustainable energy and a cleaner transportation fleet. Responding to the tar sands invasion will require solutions reduce fossil fuel use and spur low-carbon transportation and energy solutions such as broadened electric vehicle use and development of renewable and clean fuels.

        This tar sands invasion can be stopped: Clean Transportation Solutions

        The good news is this tar sands invasion can be stopped starting with leadership from government officials to embrace climate and sustainable transportation solutions. NRDC’s report for the west coast outlines detailed recommendations for decision-makers at all levels. The first step is for decision-makers at all levels to become familiar with the unique issues associated with tar sands oil and then to actively identify the full range of solutions to confront this problem. Without action, the U.S. will unintentionally become a thoroughfare for this oil undermining climate policies and presenting risks to communities and water. With support for regional clean energy policies, we can prevent the influx of tar sands crude and build the green infrastructure and public support necessary to begin transitioning to a clean energy economy.

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