State oil trains run into heavy opposition

Staff writerMay 5, 2014 

As Washington environmental regulators start wrestling with the safety of new and larger fuel terminals along the Pacific Coast, some residents in southwest Washington communities are getting restless — with worries about the safety of crude oil shipped by rail to refineries and shipping docks.

Oil-by-rail traffic is growing in Washington by leaps and bounds, altering the way oil is fed to refineries and challenging a state that has a good record of oil safety on marine waters.

Traffic went from zero barrels by rail in 2011 to 12.1 million barrels in 2012 and 17 million last year, state environmental authorities say. The amounts are expected to rise in 2014 and eventually go far higher as up to 10 new or expanded facilities are finished in Vancouver, Grays Harbor and at the state’s five existing refineries from Tacoma to Ferndale.

Last week, a crowd of about 150 people turned out for a hearing in Centralia that was designed to measure how widely to study the environmental effects of two of the three oil terminal projects proposed for Hoquiam’s ocean port at Grays Harbor.

That hearing followed another large crowd at a meeting the previous week in Hoquiam.

In both cases, the sentiment against the projects — and especially the onrush of oil-train traffic into Washington — was overwhelming.

“Being born on the wrong side of the track takes on new meaning now,” said Larry Kerschner, a Centralia resident who testified about what the additional 120-car trains might do to auto and truck traffic. “I hope that no one dies while waiting for an ambulance to get across the tracks. I hope that no one’s house burns down while waiting for the firetruck to come across the tracks.”

Others called for better emergency responses to spills, increased inspections once terminals are expanded, and safeguards including one man’s call for a $50 million surety bond against damages. Some wanted a broad look that includes oil-by-rail effects along the Columbia River, which is the main entry point for oil trains.

Some who spoke noted the deadly explosions of a train carrying volatile oil in Lac-Mergantic, Quebec, which killed 47 last year. And just one day after the hearing, an oil train went off the tracks in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia.

The public meetings — dubbed “scoping hearings” — were sponsored by the Department of Ecology and the city of Hoquiam, which are jointly leading the environmental review process. Although some speakers at hearings want the state simply to halt the oil industry’s quick expansion in Washington, DOE doesn’t have the power to issue a moratorium, said agency spokeswoman Linda Kent.

Paula Ehlers, who oversees the environmental review for Ecology on the two Hoquiam projects, said the agency expects to evaluate effects along the short-line rail from Grays Harbor to Centralia. But the question of how much further the agency needs to go — such as considering Columbia River Gorge effects — won’t be determined until the public comment period ends May 27.

The agency similarly hasn’t decided how to weigh the effects of oil shipping on climate change.

Sponsors of the projects are Westway Terminals, a Louisiana firm whose Hoquiam terminal handles methanol for industrial processes, and Imperium Renewables, a Seattle-based biofuels company, both of which began operating facilities at Grays Harbor in the past decade. Each is expanding storage and shipping facilities for its coastal market and each expects to significantly boost rail traffic to feed its facilities that transport fuels by barge and ship.

Both companies bring in crude oil from North Dakota, and transportation officials say this oil is more volatile and explosive than conventional crude oil.

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