In the Northwest, the number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River could dramatically increase, and that’s sharpened a debate over oil train safety in Washington state and Oregon. There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region to a proposed oil terminal in Washington. As Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, a recent derailment has shown the potential danger the area faces.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a Friday in early June, more than 40,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled in a fiery oil train derailment that burned for 14 hours.
EMILY REED: It is an incredibly scary thing to have something like this happen so – and within our city limits, so close to our school.
WILSON: Emily Reed is the city council president in Mosier, Ore., the town where the derailment took place. About 500 people live in Mosier, and 100 of them were forced to evacuate when the oil train derailed. Reed points out the town’s deep in the Columbia River Gorge, a canyon with steep cliffs, where winds can reach 40 miles per hour during the summer.
REED: If the wind had been as it is today or more, we would have had a fire going up more than four of those cars, all the way through town and wiping out our town.
WILSON: Union Pacific was to blame for the derailment that caused the oil spill, according to a preliminary report by the Federal Railroad Administration. It says Union Pacific didn’t maintain its tracks properly. However, an inspector certified by that same federal agency checked the tracks and gave them the OK a little more than a month before the derailment.
JERRY OLIVER: It was unfortunate for the community.
WILSON: Jerry Oliver is a port commissioner in Vancouver, Wash., and a vocal supporter of what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, known as the Vancouver Energy Project.
OLIVER: It’s also unfortunate because it gives a tremendous black eye to anything related to fossil fuels.
WILSON: If built, the terminal would more than double the number of mile-long oil trains traveling along the Columbia River, to about 46 trains per week. Serena Larkin is with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that opposes the oil terminal. She says until Mosier, oil train derailments were the kind of thing that happened somewhere else.
SERENA LARKIN: Mosier proved that we’re not any different. We are just as vulnerable. We are facing the exact same risks from oil trains that everyone else in North America is facing right now.
WILSON: Despite low oil prices, proponents of the project say the terminal is needed to reduce foreign imports and move domestic oil. For now, it’s relying on oil trains because there aren’t enough pipelines to move oil from North Dakota to the West Coast. Larkin says Mosier’s a turning point in the debate surrounding the Vancouver oil terminal and one that will weigh heavily on whether the project gets permitted.
LARKIN: It showed what the Vancouver oil terminal is really asking Northwest communities to shoulder in risk.
DAN RILEY: I strongly believe that all accidents are preventable.
WILSON: Dan Riley is vice president of government affairs for Tesoro, an oil company behind the project. Since the derailment in Mosier, he says there has been more scrutiny.
RILEY: I think that the criticism is not of the project, but of the rail system.
WILSON: Reilly says Tesoro has also pledged to only allow tank cars with thicker shells and other safety features designed to withstand a derailment into the Vancouver facility. But that’s done little to ease the safety concerns of firefighters and environmental groups. Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say on whether the project gets approved. That decision could come later this year. Inslee’s acknowledged the risk oil trains pose. He says the Mosier derailment is among the things he’ll consider when determining whether or not he’ll permit the oil terminal. For NPR News, I’m Conrad Wilson in Vancouver, Wash.
Gorge leaders oppose Vancouver oil terminal as hearings wrap up
By Patrick Mulvihill, August 5, 2016
Gorge leaders spoke out against a proposed oil-by-marine terminal in Vancouver as hearings over the project’s fate came to a close July 29.
Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) heard closing arguments for an environmental review of the terminal proposed by Vancouver Energy, a venture spearheaded by Tesoro Corp.
EFSEC is charged with recommending whether Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should approve or reject the 360,000-barrel per day oil hub at the Port of Vancouver, and panel’s decision is expected in late 2016.
At Friday’s hearing — the final chance for public oral testimony — local elected leaders and environmental advocates evoked the recent memory of Mosier, where a crude oil bearing train derailed and caught fire on June 3.
Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, gave the panel a stark depiction of the aftermath.
“We’re really still exhausted,” she said. “This is going to be an ongoing, long-term process that we’re going to be dealing with,” Burns said.
She noted that Mosier’s groundwater had been contaminated by oil during the spill. Drinking water has been declared safe, but concerns remain for the rainy season washing out remaining oil in the ground.
Peter Cornelison, a Hood River City Council member and field representative for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, argued the risks of a new terminal — and boosted train traffic — would affect all river communities.
Proponents of the terminal highlighted economic benefits and stressed a need for United States’ independence in the oil industry. They said the terminal would be held to regulatory safeguards.
“We believe the evidence has demonstrated that this project is necessary to secure a strong sustainable reliable supply of energy for the citizens of Washington,” Jay P. Derr, an attorney representing Tesoro, said.
“We ask the council to recognize and remember the benefits the Port of Vancouver provides, and work hard to avoid … hurting those structures and processes that allow the port to provide those benefits to the community,” said David Bartz, a port attorney.
Most testimony disagreed with the terminal’s backers about the project’s safety and economic value.
Washington Attorney General’s Office came out last week against the terminal. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the potential benefits of the project are “dramatically outweighed by the potential risks and costs of a spill.”
The cities of Vancouver and Spokane also voiced opposition, a sentiment expressed in recent months by letters and resolutions by tribes, advocacy groups and governments throughout the region.
Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said the local group hopes in light of the Mosier derailment, EFSEC will recognize the risk of another fiery oil train wreck in the Columbia Gorge.
Both sides in the issue will now file closing written briefs, ending testimony. EFSEC is expected to issue a decision in late 2016. From there, Inslee will make a decision that can be appealed in state supreme court.
Repost from the Spokane Spokesman-Review [Editor: Oh…this sounds SO familiar…. Benicia sends solidarity and support to our friends in Washington state. – RS]
Critics say oil trains report underestimates risk
By Becky Kramer, December 18, 2015
The chance of an oil train derailing and dumping its cargo between Spokane and a new terminal proposed for Vancouver, Washington, is extremely low, according to a risk assessment prepared for state officials.
Such a derailment would probably occur only once every 12 years, and in the most likely scenario, only half a tank car of oil would be spilled, according to the report.
But critics say the risk assessment – which includes work by three Texas consultants who are former BNSF Railway employees and count the railroad as a client – is based on generic accident data, and likely lowballs the risk of a fiery derailment in Spokane and other communities on the trains’ route.
The consultants didn’t use accident data from oil train wrecks when they calculated the low probability of a derailment and spill. The report says that shipping large amounts of oil by rail is such a recent phenomanon that there isn’t enough data to produce a statistically valid risk assessment. Instead, the consultants drew on decades of state and national data about train accidents.
That approach is problematic, said Fred Millar, an expert in hazardous materials shipments.
Probability research is “a shaky science” to begin with, said Millar, who is a consultant for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm opposed to the terminal. “The only way that you can get anything that’s even partly respectable in a quantitative risk assessment is if you have a full set of relevant data.”
To look at accident rates for freight trains, and assume you can draw credible comparisons for oil trains, is “very chancy,” he said. “Unit trains of crude oil are a much different animal…They’re very long and heavy, that makes them hard to handle. They come off the rails.”
And, they’re carrying highly flammable fuel, he said.
Terminal would bring four more oil trains through Spokane daily
The proposed Vancouver Energy terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, accepting about 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields and Alberta’s tar sands. For Spokane and Sandpoint, the terminal would mean four more 100-car oil trains rumbling through town each day – on top of the two or three per day that currently make the trip.
The proposed $210 million terminal is a joint venture between Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.
A spill risk assessment was part of the project’s draft environmental impact statement, which was released late last month. A public meeting on the draft EIS takes place Jan. 14 in Spokane Valley. State officials are accepting public comments on the document through Jan. 22.
The spill risk work was done by a New York company – Environmental Research Consulting – and MainLine Management of Texas, whose three employees are former BNSF employees, and whose website lists BNSF Railway as a client. The company has also done work for the Port of Vancouver, where the terminal would be located.
The risk analysis assumes the trains would make a 1,000-mile loop through the state. From Spokane, the mile-long oil trains would head south, following the Columbia River to Vancouver. After the trains unloaded the oil, they would head north, crossing the Cascade Range at Stampede Pass before returning through Spokane with empty cars.
Report used data on hazardous materials spills
Oil train derailments have been responsible for a string of fiery explosions across North America in the past three years – including a 2013 accident that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Other oil train derailments have led to evacuations, oil spills into waterways and fires that burned for days.
But since shipping crude oil by train is relatively new, there’s not enough statistical information about oil train accidents to do risk calculations, the consultants said several times in the risk assessment.
Instead, they looked at federal and state data on train derailments and spills of hazardous materials dating back to 1975, determining that the extra oil train traffic between Spokane and Vancouver posed little risk to communities.
Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, president of Environmental Research Consulting, declined to answer questions about the risk assessment. Calls to MainLine Management, which is working under Schmidt Etkin, were not returned.
Stephen Posner, manager for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council, which is overseeing the preparation of the environmental impact statement, dismissed questions about potential conflicts of interest.
“There aren’t a lot of people who have the expertise to do this type of analysis,” Posner said.
Schmidt Etkin also worked on a 2014 oil train report to the Washington Legislature, he said. “She’s highly regarded in the field.”
According to her company website, Schmidt Etkin has a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology. The site says she provides spill and risk analysis to government regulators, nonprofits and industry groups. Her client list includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard and the American Petroleum Institute.
Posner reviewed the scope of work outlined for the spill risk analysis.
“We put together the best analysis we could with limited sources of information,” he said. “This is a draft document. We’re looking for input from the public on how we can make it better.”
Spokane ‘a more perilous situation’
The “worst case” scenario developed for the risk assessment has also drawn criticism. The consultants based it on an oil train losing 20,000 barrels of oil during a derailment. The risk assessment indicates that would be an improbable event, occurring only once every 12,000 to 22,000 years.
In fact, twice as much crude oil was released during the 2013 Lac-Megantic accident in Quebec, said Matt Krogh, who works for Forest Ethics in Bellingham, Washington, which also opposes construction of the Vancouver Energy Terminal.
“If I was looking at this as a state regulator, and I saw this was wrong – quite wrong – I would have them go back to the drawing board for all of it,” Krogh said.
Krogh said he’s disappointed that former BNSF employees didn’t use their expertise to provide a more meaningful risk analysis. Instead of looking at national data, they could have addressed specific risks in the Northwest, he said.
Oil trains roll through downtown Spokane on elevated bridges, in close proximity to schools, hospitals, apartments and work places. In recent years, the bridges have seen an increase in both coal and oil train traffic, Krogh said.
“The No. 1 cause of derailments is broken tracks, and the No. 1 cause of broken tracks is axle weight,” he said. “We can talk about national figures, but when you talk about Spokane as a rail funnel for the Northwest, you have a more perilous situation based on the large number of heavy trains.”
Elevated rail bridges pose an added risk for communities, said Millar, the Earthjustice consultant. The Lac-Megantic accident was so deadly because the unmanned train sped downhill and tank cars crashed into each other, he said. Not all of the cars were punctured in the crash, but once the oil started burning, the fire spread, he said.
“If you have elevated tracks and the cars start falling off the tracks, they’re piling on top of each other,” Millar said. “That’s what Spokane has to worry about – the cars setting each other off.”
Governor has the final say
Railroad industry officials say that 99.9 percent of trains carrying hazardous materials reach their destination without releases. According to the risk assessment, BNSF had only three reported train derailments per year in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The railroad has spent millions of dollars upgrading tracks in Washington in recent years, and the tracks get inspected regularly, according to company officials.
Whether the Vancouver Energy Terminal is built is ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision. After the final environment impact statement is released, the 10-member Energy and Facilities Siting Council will make a recommendation to the governor, who has the final say.
Environmental impact statements lay out the risks of projects, allowing regulators to seek mitigation. So, it’s important that the EIS is accurate, said Krogh, of Forest Ethics.
In Kern County, California, Earthjustice is suing over the environmental impact statement prepared for an oil refinery expansion. According to the lawsuit, the EIS failed to adequately address the risk to communities from increased oil train traffic.
“If you have a risk that’s grossly underestimated, you’ll be making public policy decisions based on flawed data,” Krogh said.