As this editorial page has noted, Washington has seen a stunning increase in the amount of Bakken crude oil transported on our railroads, to an estimated 2.87 billion gallons each year. Much of that highly flammable oil rolls across the central Puget Sound region, through downtown Tacoma and past Steilacoom in aging tank cars.
The surge in train traffic has created an unprecedented risk to our people, our economy, our traffic and our environment. Our communities assume all of the risks while big oil companies get all of the rewards.
There’s the immediate risk to public safety when flammable fuel passes through heavily populated areas like Tacoma and Seattle and past our neighborhoods, schools and parks. Since July 2013, there have been nine serious train derailments across North America – more than we experienced during the past four decades combined. An oil-train explosion last year in Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people and wiped out half a downtown area.
There’s also the increased risk of oil spills contaminating Puget Sound and undermining the progress we’ve made in waterfront development and cleaning up the Foss Waterway. It’s a scenario we saw earlier this year when an oil train spilled more than 20,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River just outside Lynchburg, Virginia.
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We work hard to ensure that our first responders have the equipment and training they need to respond to oil-train derailments, spills and fires. But we need state and federal action to prevent these potentially life-threatening tragedies from occurring in the first place.
That is why we brought together more than 100 other elected leaders from across the Northwest and British Columbia to form the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance. It’s a broad coalition of local leaders from urban and rural areas who share a mission to better understand the potential safety and economic impacts from oil and coal trains, and call for stronger safety standards.
Having multiple mile-long trains – each carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil – roll through Pierce and King counties snarls our traffic and makes it more difficult for our emergency personnel to respond to calls. The proposed increase in oil traffic would also harm our local businesses, manufacturers and farmers who rely on our limited rail capacity to transport their goods to overseas markets.
Displacing Washington state agriculture and manufactured products that create jobs to make way for crude oil would benefit only oil companies.
Perhaps what’s most concerning is that there is the potential for all of these risks and impacts to substantially increase over the next six years if proposed facilities are built along the Pacific coast.
The Department of Ecology estimates that the amount of crude oil that comes through our state could triple – to nearly 9 billion gallons each year – by 2020. The number of fully loaded oil trains that cross our state each week could go from 19 to more than 100 within the next few years.
That’s why we applaud Gov. Jay Inslee for fast-tracking the state’s Marine and Rail Oil Transportation study and the Department of Ecology for hosting a public meeting Thursday in Olympia (see box). This study shines a light on the risks and costs to our communities, and makes recommendations to strengthen disclosure of hazards and emergency preparedness.
We urge our state lawmakers to act swiftly on these recommendations, and enact provisions that maintain public safety. The costs to protect our communities and prevent delays in rail crossings should fall to the oil industry and not local governments.
Our long-term goal is to establish the Northwest as a global exporter of clean energy. In the meantime, we will work together to ensure that oil and coal companies don’t take up our limited rail space, put our communities at risk and harm our local economy.
Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello and King County Executive Dow Constantine are members of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance.