Tag Archives: Tacoma WA

Town Considers Rebuilding School Outside of the Oil Train Blast-Zone

Repost from KOMO News, Seattle WA

Oil train blast zone worries prompt radical plan

By Jon Humbert, May 24, 2016

MT. VERNON, Wa. — Larry Anderson walks by the school where his kids learned basic arithmetic and geography.

As he walks down into a wooded area behind Madison Elementary school in Mt. Vernon, those two schoolhouse subjects intersect like never before.

“Deeply personal because of what can happen,” Anderson says while overhearing the whistle of a nearby train.

Anderson spent years working at refineries storing and transporting hazardous materials. So the half-mile proximity between Madison and the train tracks is a legitimate worry.

“The alarms go off. And we’re going to hear this alarm,” he said.

While the chances are slim, the destruction is powerful when trouble hits the tracks.

Train derailments, explosions and disasters like we’ve seen in recent years have communities on alert.

Recent derailments in Tacoma and Magnolia brought the fears home to Western Washington; a local fear that environmental activist Alex Ramel wants to hammer home.

“We want to connect the dots there between those refineries,” Ramel said.

His group STAND has not only been championing plans to move away from fossil fuels but boosting safety and security on existing rail lines.

“The oil that’s coming in on oil trains is the dirtiest, it’s the most dangerous and it’s not necessary,” Ramel said.

STAND used mapping technology to plot the U.S. Department of Transportation danger zones for rail accidents. The KOMO Investigators used the concept to map out more than 140 schools from Olympia to Canadian border.
BlastZone_NW-Washington2 The red zone is for a half-mile impact zone. The yellow border is a one-mile evacuation zone.

Right now only Mt. Vernon’s school district appears to be in a position to change locations.

Anderson proposed a radical idea to get Madison out of the blast zone entirely.

“What we presented to voters were things that we knew were absolute essentials,” said Mt. Vernon Superintendent Carl Bruner.

He was thrilled that voters approved a $106 million bond in February, which included a full tear down and rebuild of Madison.

That was an opening Anderson felt could bring attention to moving Madison out of the dangers of the blast zone and rebuild it on a district-owned plot of land about a mile outside the blast zone.

“Our board would consider alternative sites,” Bruner said.

The district is hiring a safety consultant to see if it could be done.

“We absolutely need to look at where we’re putting schools. Where we’re putting children in particular but at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of land that we have,” said State Representative Jessyn Ferrell.

She was intrigued by what was happening with Mt. Vernon. But in cities like Seattle, there aren’t alternative sites or much money to rebuild.

“We are in a very tricky urban environment,” Ferrell said.

Industry experts like Bruce Agnew of the Cascadia Center say the devastation of rail accidents gets headlines, even if accidents are rare. But it’s just simple probabilities it will happen again.

“There’s always terrible accidents involving the transport of hazardous materials. The issue is mitigating the risks,” Agnew said.

Risks that may be small, but catastrophic. So Anderson’s unique idea could continue to pick up steam.

“You can choose not to do, to not build in that zone. There’s no reason to build in that area right now,” he said.

DERAILMENT: Train Derails at Port of Tacoma

Repost from KIRO TV, Seattle WA

Oil tank cars derail near Port of Tacoma; no spills or injuries

Righting derailed train could take until midnight

Updated: Apr 22, 2016 – 2:52 PM

TACOMA, Wash — An empty tanker train has derailed at the Port of Tacoma, with 18 cars off the tracks.

The train belongs to Tacoma Rail and all of the tank cars are empty.

Tacoma firefighters at the scene said there were no spills and no one was hurt.

Lincoln is closed at 11th Avenue. It may take until midnight to get the car upright again.

Some businesses have been affected by the scene.


Lessons from a 2011 derailment: the 911 call, BNSF no-show, first responders, timelines

Repost from Sightline Daily

What Happened When a Hazardous Substance Train Derailed on a Puget Sound Beach

True story from 2011 raises questions about railroad’s ability to manage oil trains.
Eric de Place, November 21, 2014

If you’ve ever wondered how an oil train derailment might go down on the shores of Puget Sound, it might look a bit like the winter night derailment in 2011 that spilled sodium hydroxide on a beach at Chambers Bay south of Tacoma. It was hardly the kind of disaster that has resulted from oil trains derailing, but it still makes for a rather instructive lesson in how these things happen.

Sodium hydroxide, more commonly known as lye, is used as a chemical base in the production of pulp and paper, textiles, drain cleaners, and other products. (It’s also the major ingredient that makes lutefisk unpalatable.) It’s caustic, corrosive to metal and glass, and it can cause fairly serious burns. You want to be careful handling it but—notably unlike the volatile shale oil traveling daily on the very same rail line—it does not erupt into 300-foot-tall fireballs.

If it had been an oil train, things could have been much, much worse.

Chambers Bay derailment by WA Ecology_2

What happened is this: around 8 pm on February 26, 2011, a north-bound freight train derailed, sideswiping a south-bound train that was carrying (among other things) four loaded tank cars of sodium hydroxide in a liquid solution. One of those cars was damaged in the collision and leaked a relatively modest 50 gallons onto the beach before response crews plugged the leak.

At the time, of course, no one knew how serious the incident was—and things did not go smoothly that night. The 911 call went out at 8:02 and firefighters were responding by 8:10. At 8:31 the Pierce County Sheriff alerted the National Response Center, the agency that in turn notifies all the relevant federal and state agencies. The Department of Ecology learned of the accident at 8:52.

By contrast, BNSF, owner of the railway and operator of the train—not to mention the nation’s leading carrier of volatile Bakken shale oil—did not contact emergency management authorities until 8:56. And then things got worse. As the government responders assembled—sheriff’s deputies, fire fighters, US Coast Guard officials, oil spill clean-up experts—they were unable to get the railway to respond to their requests for information, or even to show up at the fire department’s incident command post.

By 11:00, three hours after the accident, the responders held their incident briefing to plan how to enter the site yet they still were unable to get BNSF officials to appear. According to Ecology’s official account, “local, state, and federal responders did not know who was participating on BNSF’s response team, their level of training nor their plan of action.”

Chambers Bay derailment by WA Ecology_1

Finally, at 11:45, almost four hours after the derailment and still without a line of communication to BNSF, local fire fighters moved into the scene. Not until 11:50 did a railway representative show up and at that point responders were finally able to establish reliable communication with the railroad. But it was almost too late: just as the fire fighters were entering the scene, BNSF began moving rail cars on the site, putting them directly into harm’s way.

Local and state responders were eventually able to secure the site and clean up the material. Yet it took days to accomplish, during which time several high tides inundated the spill area. And the story wasn’t over: a few days later, on March 1, a contractor for the railway spilled another 100 gallons of sodium hydroxide when the equipment operators lost control of a damaged tank car they were removing from the shoreline.

Chambers Bay derailment by WA Ecology_3

For jeopardizing incident responders, and for failing to coordinate with state agencies as required under Washington law, Ecology fined BNSF $3,000. The state also sent the railway a bill for $6,370 to cover the response and clean up costs. (By way of comparison, BNSF regularly reports quarterly earnings in the billion-dollar range.)

The Chambers Bay derailment should be seen as a cautionary tale because it all could have been much worse if the train had been loaded with 3 million gallons of Bakken shale oil, a typical quantity for the several oil trains that pass over that very same rail line several times a day. Not only might the oil explode catastrophically — as it has on at least four occasions recently — but it would almost certainly contaminate the Sound and beaches that the tracks run alongside. It’s worth noting too that the incident occurred directly adjacent to the Chambers Bay Golf Course, which will be hosting the 2015 US Open and a projected 235,000 fans.