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Oil Trains Coming: Local Officials Prepare for the Worst

Skagit Valley Herald, Mount Vernon, Wash.

By Kimberly Cauvel | Posted: Sunday, March 2, 2014 11:30 pm

Oil tankers along Highway 20

                                                  Colette Weeks

A train pulls tanks of crude oil toward the refineries in Anacortes in August.

Traffic is blocked at three major intersections in Mount Vernon, and a fire is burning downtown.

Mount Vernon and Burlington fire trucks and ambulances dispatched to the scene determine alternate routes because a 100-car oil train is blocking crossings at Riverside Drive, College Way and Hoag Road. The roundabout trip may add about two minutes to their typical response time of seven minutes or less.

Emergency response teams from across Skagit County are preparing to provide assistance. The city fire department calls the Skagit County Department of Emergency Management to alert the county, state and federal agencies to the situation.

Because life safety is the first priority, responder resources focus on evacuating the surrounding area. Meanwhile, the fire may be spreading along the length of the train, and oil may be spilling into storm drains and the Skagit River, which is 600 feet from the tracks.

City departments such as Public Works join the scene to help plug storm drains and sewer lines.

Firefighters ultimately have to decide whether to fight the flames or let them burn out, eliminating the oil in the process that could kill salmon if it gets in the river.

That’s how Mount Vernon Fire Chief Roy Hari envisions the first 20 minutes following a hypothetical oil train derailment in the city.

Oil train safety has recently gained local, state and national attention because of a surge of crude oil coming by rail from North Dakota’s Bakken fields and several recent oil train accidents. The increase of rail delivery has occurred because of a decrease in oil coming from Alaska by ship.

“The Bakken crude is the problem here, which is the light, very flammable stuff, and it moves and it burns at the same time,” Hari said, calling a potential accident a “dynamic situation.”

Emergency response challenges during a potential disaster are some of the many concerns raised about crude-by-rail traveling through Skagit County communities on the way to its two oil refineries in Anacortes.

Other concerns include traffic and emergency services delays in the event of a non-emergency stall and the potential for an oil spill where the rail lines bisect lush farmland in the valley and run along important marine waters including the Swinomish Channel and Padilla Bay.

County and city emergency responders are working on an emergency response plan. Environmental groups want a comprehensive review of fuel-by-rail projects in the region. And legislation passing through Olympia addresses the same issues.

Skagit and Whatcom counties are each home to two coastal refineries: Shell and Tesoro in Anacortes, Phillips 66 in Ferndale and BP at Cherry Point.

Shell is the only one that has not yet received permits for Bakken crude-by-rail projects, but is in the permitting process. Shell proposes a rail expansion project to allow for up to seven trains per week. A similar train-unloading facility built in 2012 at nearby Tesoro can receive up to six trains per week.

Crude oil expansions at the four refineries in northern Puget Sound, along with the controversial Gateway Pacific Terminal proposal to ship coal from Cherry Point to China, are five of 20 proposals in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia to increase fossil fuels traveling by rail through the Pacific Northwest, according to letters Bellingham-based organization Protect Whatcom sent to Skagit County officials.

Half of those projects would send coal from Wyoming and Montana or oil from North Dakota to Skagit, Whatcom and British Columbia; up to 37 trains daily, empty and full, if all of the projects are approved. About 1 in 3 would be carrying Bakken crude.

All of the trains would pass through Mount Vernon, and those headed farther north would pass through Burlington, as well.

“Do we really want to see trains explode coming through our communities going to these terminals?” asked Matt Krogh, Bellingham-based campaign director for the nonprofit ForestEthics. “… They’re putting in explosive crude and shipping it through communities that are not prepared.”

Local officials say the coal terminal proposed north of Bellingham brought rail traffic issues to their attention. Public input helped shape the scope of two comprehensive Environmental Impact Statements that must be completed before the terminal can be built. But no EIS was required for several oil-by-rail facilities on the state’s coast, and several more facilities are planned.

The result may be more oil trains rolling through Skagit communities, and the county Department of Emergency Management is working on a countywide emergency response plan for possible derailments.

A model-size exercise is planned with the state Department of Ecology in April, and a live training drill with a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train later this year. Both will take place in Mount Vernon.

“Let’s say a train derails somewhere in the city … How does our fire truck even get up to the scene? Can they fit? What streets would we have to block traffic to?” Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau asked. “All of those things are things we want to exercise so that if anything does happen, we are prepared.”

The Mount Vernon Fire Department is heavily involved in county planning.

“We’re very concerned about this. Rather than sit back and wait for something to happen, we’re taking a more proactive approach,” Fire Chief Hari said. “In Skagit County, we certainly have the biggest risk because these trains are coming through the highest population center of our county — they go right through the middle of our town.”

Next door Burlington is also split by the tracks, and Fire Chief Dave Nielson said even moving rail traffic causes transportation and emergency response delays on a regular basis, adding to the department’s response times.

Then there’s the potential dangers associated with oil trains, which are flammable whether the tank cars are full or empty, particularly with Bakken crude, he said.

The Burlington Fire Department has been involved in derailment response preparation with the county and Mount Vernon.

“We’re still in the early stages of trying to gather information and really assess the hazard of the cargos they are carrying and trying to figure out what we can do within our budgets,” Nielson said.

Meanwhile, state legislation also addresses oil transportation safety and emergency response, but there are limits to what the state has power to do when it comes to rail lines.

Three bills under consideration ask for an evaluation of the state’s ability to respond to accidents, documentation and reporting of crude oil movement; an increase in oil tanker escort in Puget Sound; and expansion of the existing per-barrel tax on tanker shipments to apply to rail shipments.

Organizations like Protect Whatcom say transport of oil through communities along the rail lines should not be allowed until potential human and environmental health impacts are studied.

Backed by other local and national environmental organizations and a handful of Skagit locals, Protect Whatcom sent letters to the county planning department in February regarding oil transport projects at the Anacortes refineries.

The letters ask Skagit County planners to issue a determination of significance for Shell’s pending application under the State Environmental Policy Act and to withdraw the mitigated determination of nonsignificance issued in 2011 for a similar Tesoro project, which was the first in the region to receive Bakken Crude. To do so would require environmental impact statements for both.

The Bellingham Herald reported the same groups — Protect Whatcom, Safeguard the South Fork and Friends of the Earth — sent a similar letter to Whatcom County officials in January regarding BP and Phillips 66.

Whatcom County refused to rescind the permits.

Skagit County decided not to respond to the letter directed at Tesoro’s permit because the SEPA appeals window is closed, the project was completed in August 2012 and the facility is in operation, county planner Brandon Black said.

The letter directed at Shell’s permit application was received during the public comment period that ended Feb. 17 and will be considered as a submission, county planner Leah Forbes said.

The county is reviewing comments before making a decision. Most of the comments received ask for an EIS, Forbes said.

Protect Whatcom co-founder Terry Weschler said the goal of the letters is to draw the attention of state and federal officials to the number of oil-by-rail proposals in the state.

“When these three proposals (at BP, Phillips 66 and Tesoro) were approved earlier, we had no way of knowing that there were 20 total possible fuel transportation proposals in the state, so timely appeals were never filed,” she said.

Anacortes-area resident Carolyn Gastellum is one of a handful of Skagit residents who signed on to Protect Whatcom’s comment letters and she shares the organization’s stance.

“Now there’s enough newer information about how dangerous (Bakken) crude oil is in transport that why permit more and more trains to be hauling that until all safety issues can be addressed to the highest possible standard?” she asked.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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