Increase in Washington’s Oil Trains Draws More Than 750 to Public Meeting
Following the release of a state-study on oil-by-rail transport, politicians, experts, and protesters voiced safety and environmental concerns in Olympia
By Josh Wolf
Some 200 environmentalists and activists gathered in front of the Red Lion Hotel, leading chants and singing songs to make their voices heard in opposition to an increase in oil trains traveling through Washington. Later in the evening of Oct. 30, more than 750 people gathered inside the hotel for a public meeting to discuss the Washington Department of Ecology’s (DOE) preliminary report on marine and rail transportation of oil.
The report recommends greater funding for Washington’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program, as well as greater funding for fire departments. Many of the speakers at the public meeting were concerned with possible explosions, due to the highly volatile Bakken crude oil, which makes up one third of the oil transported by rail in Washington.
“Even the largest and most sophisticated fire departments in Washington are not adequately prepared or equipped,” to deal with a Bakken explosion, said Geoff Simpson, of the Kent Fire Department, who was representing the Washington Council of Firefighters. “One thing is clear from all the explosions and derailments,” said Simpson. “There is no safe way to transport Bakken crude oil by rail.”
Steven Buxbaum, Olympia Mayor and Evergreen alum and faculty said, “Since July 2013, there have been nine serious oil train derailments across North America. More than in the past four decades combined.” Buxbaum also spoke of an oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada killing 47 people, and destroying 40 buildings. Nathaniel Jones, Olympia Mayor pro tem, said that “More than 1.2 million gallons spilled from oil trains in 2013.”
Other explosions have occurred in Casselton, ND, Aliceville, Ala., and New Brunswick, Canada. In Lynchburg, VA, oil cars plunged into the James River, spilling 30,000 gallons of crude Bakken oil into the river.
The meeting provided a platform for public comments on the Department of Ecology’s $300,000 ongoing study on the marine and rail transportation of oil, which was funded by the Legislature and expedited by Governor Jay Inslee. The study focuses “on developing recommendations to foster public health and safety, environmental protection, and respect for tribal treaty rights,” according to the report. The DOE’s report, which is still in draft form and open for comment, is to be finalized and presented to the Governor and Legislature with specific policy recommendations March 1.
Buxbaum called the DOE’s report “a good start,” but was critical and cautious of oil trains traveling through Washington. “We need to be absolutely clear about the risks and costs to our communities due to the dramatic increase of rail transported oil,” said Buxbaum.
One of the organizations responsible for minimizing those risks is the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), a regulatory organization charged with inspecting railroads to federal standards. Currently, the UTC does not have the authority to enter private shipping yards.
“We want to be able to go onto the shipper’s property to make sure they’re safe before they go back out on the rails,” said Ann Rendahl, director of policy and legislative affairs for the UTC.
The DOE’s report recommends that the UTC be granted authority to enter private shipping yards. Additionally, the report suggests that the UTC should have authority to inspect the 3,000 privately owned rail crossings, which are currently out of the UTC’s jurisdiction.
The report also recommends that the UTC should receive increased funding to hire more rail inspectors. “Because of a lack of funding, the UTC’s four inspectors have the capacity to inspect one third of the 3,000 rail crossings in the state every year,” said Rendahl.
Representatives from the Quinault Indian Nation and the Nisqually Indian Tribe voiced their concerns at the meeting, saying that oil trains endanger their lands, and that a spill would violate their treaty rights as sovereign nations.
The public meeting also drew elected officials from Tacoma, Aberdeen, Grays Harbor, Clallam, Vancouver, Olympia, and Milwaukie, Ore., all of whom had concerns with oil-by-rail.
Ryan Mello of the Tacoma City Council said an oil spill at the Port of Tacoma would put 40,000 jobs at risk. Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon was also concerned with endangering jobs. “31 percent of jobs in the harbor are marine resource jobs,” said Gordon. “It’s just not worth it.”
Alan Richrod of the Aberdeen City Council spoke about a resolution he wrote in opposition to the transport and storage of crude oil, which passed unanimously. Vancouver, WA, adopted a similar resolution, and according to the Washington Environmental Council, 16 similar resolutions have passed in Washington.
Earlier in the day, there were multiple protests opposing oil-by-rail in the Olympia area. The Seattle Raging Grannies, a group of activist grandmothers, blocked the entrance to the DOE for five hours. Sitting below umbrellas in rocking chairs chained together, the grannies told DOE workers that their department was closed for the day for a “Workshop on How to Say No to Big Oil,” reported Earth First! Journal.
On their way to the public meeting, a group of 30 people marched from Marathon Park to the Red Lion Hotel, where a larger protest of some 200 people gathered outside the hotel’s lobby. The protest was a coalition of many groups including Idle No More, Olympia For Reconciliation, Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, the Backbone Campaign, Portland Rising Tide, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. Anti-oil groups led songs and chants before the meeting began.