Tag Archives: Washington Department of Ecology

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.

Publicity-stunt sit-ins, council resolutions won’t stop oil trains

Repost from Seattle PI.com
[Editor: This is a challenging think-piece for opponents of crude by rail.  Personally, I believe that sit-ins, songs and resolutions have a place in a multi-faceted approach to organizing against big oil and rail.  But Connelly has a point – we need to think hard and long on serious strategies for success.  – RS]

Publicity-stunt sit-ins, council resolutions won’t stop oil trains

Posted on August 1, 2014 | By Joel Connelly
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..
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.

In watching the Seattle City Council’s ritual of passing whereas-heavy, symbolic resolutions over the years, an observer can come way believing the council’s prime purpose in life is to send demonstrators home happy.

The response to oil trains, arriving in every greater numbers, is the latest example of Seattle’s insular, echo chamber politics.  Its product is meaningless symbolism.

Councilman Mike O’Brien gins up an oil train resolution, much as he did on Occupy Seattle.  Council member Kshama Sawant shows up at the BNSF tracks for her demonstration of the day.  A Sawant mini-me running for the Legislature gets arrested.  The news is telephoned to a Stranger reporter who is supporting the candidate.

Will any of this impact the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad?  Will it influence the business of giant refiners like BP and Tesoro, increasingly dependent on rail shipments of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota?

Of course not.  The carbon economy has the Interstate Commerce Act on its side.  The U.S. Department of Transportation seems intent on accommodating shippers in its rule-making. Refineries support 2,000-plus jobs in northern Puget Sound.

For instance, the USDOT’s proposed safety rules tout a “two year” required phase out of old, explosion-prone tanker cars.  When you read the fine print, phase out period begins in September 2015.

Concerned citizens rally for the need of a statewide moratorium on potentially dangerous oil-by-rail projects Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, at City Hall in Seattle. Oil trains have exploded in different regions in the U.S., causing death and property damages. (Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com)

Here is how critics can effectively put the heat on, and deal their way into the safety debate. The recent and ongoing coal port/coal train battle is a model for dealing with obtuse agencies and potentially more lethal cargoes:

– Mass support, not just driblets:  Somewhere in Seattle, somebody (usually Kshama Sawant) is demonstrating every day.  Protests pant after a moment on the evening TV news.  Often, they leave as much impression as footprints in the snow.

By contrast, a well-planned event can signal (to politicians) that a movement has staying power.  It registered when 395 people packed a Bellingham City Club meeting for a debate on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.  Sponsors had appears to have it greased.  A bigger impression was made 2,500 people who showed up for a federal-state “scoping” hearing in Seattle.

In this image made available by the City of Lynchburg, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

– An agenda, not 1960′s slogans:  Coalport/coal train port critics asked  for an independent, comprehensive look  at impacts trains will have across Washington.  They wanted environmental studies to look at climate consequences of providing economical fuel to keep aging Chinese power plants in operation.

It is absurd, for instance, for the Army Corps of Engineers to limit “transportation” to the seven-mile spur line from Custer to Cherry Point in Whatcom County.  Big coal, railroads and construction unions were flummoxed by a reasonable demand.

– A real coalition, not just a paper list:  Seattle “coalitions” are populated by the usual suspects.  A real movement gets a cross-section of recruits.  Montana ranchers are not keen to see their land torn up.  Firefighters worry that long trains will block waterfront access, and (with oil) that they’ll be left holding the bag when a 1960′s-vintage tanker car blows up.

The proposed Pebble Mine, near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, shows REAL reach-out.  Opposition began with greens, quickly embraced Alaska’s commercial and sport fisheries, gained backing from the powerful Bristol Bay Native Corp., expanded to Washington fishermen, and found roles for restaurant chefs and major jewelry companies.

– Political work horses, not show horses:  Behind all the posturing on coal ports, state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, put together letters to the feds and state laying out — precisely — potential impacts that must be known.  The letters helped shape the charge given by Gov. Jay Inslee to the Department of Ecology.

Security vehicles are shown at a gate to a Tesoro Corp. refinery , Friday, April 2, 2010, in Anacortes, Wash. An overnight fire and explosion at the refinery killed at least three people working at the plant. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

With oil trains, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., recently cornered — and treed — USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx at a recent hearing.  She delivered a message that MUST be driven home.  Faux safety measures won’t cut it.  Cantwell and Carlyle don’t go for whereas clauses.

– Fact and evidence, not just hyperbole:  Exaggeration is a basic activist weapon, broadly deployed.  It gets people riled, but has limited staying power.  What’s needed are activist-experts who learn the stuff, and steep themselves in places to be impacted.

A lighter touch should be put on heavy handed manipulation of the media.  Certain web sites and outlets can be counted on to spout the party line.  Others aren’t content to simply be fed.

The carbon economy is coming our way — big time — with proposed coal export terminals, a big terminal to receive oil trains (in Vancouver, Wash.), coal and oil trains taking over the rails, plus pipeline terminals and oil export ports in British Columbia.

It’s not going to be turned back by sit-ins or Council resolutions in a city with less than 10 percent of Washington’s population.

Seattle politics is sandlot.  What we’re facing, and trying to influence, is a big-league challenge.