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.