Despite fears, number of oil trains still increasing in Port of Tacoma

Tacoma Rail records show the line has hauled 417 oil trains across city rails since April 2013, with no derailments or fires. Each year has brought more trains — the line handled 82 oil trains in 2013, 128 in 2014 and 132 in 2015.
Tacoma Rail records show the line has hauled 417 oil trains across city rails since April 2013, with no derailments or fires. Each year has brought more trains — the line handled 82 oil trains in 2013, 128 in 2014 and 132 in 2015. The Bellingham Herald file, 2014

The Union Pacific oil train that derailed June 3 in Mosier, Oregon, rolled into the Port of Tacoma Sunday with little notice, despite the intense scrutiny its wreck, spill and fire attracted to the expanding practice of shipping crude oil by rail through the Columbia River gorge and the greater Pacific Northwest.

For Tacoma Rail, it was almost just another routine arrival in a series of hundreds of oil trains the city-owned utility has steered through Tideflats rail yards to the U.S. Oil refinery in the port. The difference: this time, only 90 full oil tankers out of the train’s original 96 27,000-gallon cars got to Tacoma, in two parts, because of the wreck.

But in the wake of the Mosier wreck, environmental and other agencies are calling for the industry to change, though it’s unclear how that would affect the burgeoning oil-train business in the Tideflats.

If it seems as if Tacoma is seeing more oil trains every year, that’s because it is.

Tacoma Rail records show the line has hauled 417 oil trains across city rails since April 2013, with no derailments or fires. Each year has brought more trains — the line handled 82 oil trains in 2013, 128 in 2014 and 132 in 2015.

The 75 oil trains Tacoma Rail hauled in the first five months of 2016 were a 31 percent increase over the January-to-May total of 57 in 2015.

To Dale King, the city rail line’s superintendent, crude oil hauling is a good business that has buoyed his 115-employee agency ever since the recession of the late 2000s cut its numbers of cars hauled to historical lows.

“The only thing that saved us were those things,” King said of the oil trains. “They helped us save 20 family-wage jobs here.”

He and U.S. Oil’s manager for administrative services, Marcia E. Nielsen, said Tacoma’s burgeoning part in the increasingly controversial oil-by-rail industry is being handled with utmost care and safety.

They noted that Tacoma firefighters have taken special training to handle spills and fires. All of U.S. Oil’s crude arrives on cars adherent to standards the Association of American Railroads set in 2011 , which added several points of reinforcement to the familiar rounded-off black tanker car that has rolled along the rails for decades.

“We want to transport oil by rail as safely as possible,” Nielsen said, “so we will support whatever the government puts in place.”

That’s a matter of hot debate, post-Mosier derailment.

Thursday, the Oregon Department of Transportation made public a June 8 letter it sent to the Federal Rail Administration calling for a moratorium on oil trains. A preliminary report faulted broken, and relatively new, track bolts for the wreck, and Oregon transportation officials wrote that the broken bolts might have been “insufficient for these types of loads.”

Tom Fuller, the department’s director of communications, told The Associated Press that if the fasteners failed to anchor the rails to the rail ties, the parallel rails could be pushed farther apart and cause a derailment. Oil’s movement inside the tanker cars as the train rolled could mean additional stress through track curves, he said.

“Our concern right now is if Union Pacific or ODOT weren’t able to determine that these bolts were broken, how do we know there aren’t more of these bolts broken in other places?” Fuller said.


Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has not called for a moratorium, but he sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx asking for a series of safety improvements to oil-by-rail transportation. Federal law updates in 2015, Inslee wrote, “simply did not go far enough in addressing the safety risks” of oil trains.

He asked for improvements, including: updated tank cars, a lower speed limit than the 50 mph at which oil trains can roll in some areas and restrictions on storing full crude oil cars “unattended for weeks or months on unused track.” One set of oil cars, he wrote, in Snohomish County sits unattended within 1,200 feet of an elementary school.

Federal regulators also say safety improvements are needed.

Even the 2011 safety improvements to the kind of oil cars used by U.S. Oil at the Port of Tacoma isn’t up to what the National Transportation Safety Board wants to see, spokesman Eric Weiss said. The updated car, he said, “does not perform much better” under stress than the decades-older models it was supposed to improve on.

“The top fittings break,” he said. “The bottom flow opening opens automatically on rollover. Basically, we want to make them safe from a puncture release and then a pool fire that then burns the next car.”

The cars the agency wants to see offer better fire protection and stronger fittings that won’t break, he said.

Another problem is that oil trains, some of which roll with more than 100 cars, are “too long and too heavy” for some stretches of the region’s track, said Mike Elliott, a longtime railroad worker and spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Longer, heavier trains can overstress rail lines on hills and curves, he said.

“Because of that, we’re seeing derailments like we haven’t seen in the past,” Elliott said.

Safety rates would improve by requiring oil trains to be shorter, which would have an effect of hiring more train crews to keep the same volume of oil running through the region, Elliott said.

“You got the capacity for it,” he said, “and we feel the shorter trains would be more manageable.”

Union Pacific spokesman Justin E. Jacobs wrote in an email Friday that the railroad had cut derailments 38 percent in the past decade, and that the railroad’s derailment prevention process works toward safety for trains of all lengths.

“Train size did not cause the accident that occurred in the Columbia River Gorge,” Jacobs wrote.

Earlier in the week, local officials in Oregon asked the governors of Washington and Oregon to work on a permanent ban on oil by rail, a sentiment echoed in the Tacoma area by anti-fossil fuels activist group RedLine Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe. They point to the April 22 derailment of empty tanker cars on the Tideflats as evidence the practice puts Tacoma residents at risk of a disaster, such as an oil spill, fire or explosion if a loaded train derails.

“Oil trains cross the Puyallup River on a daily basis,” Puyallup council chairman Bill Sterud said in a statement. “If one of those trains were to spill oil into the river, it would mean the devastation of fish and wildlife in the area for years to come.”

On a recent rainy morning, parked oil cars occupied four of nine parallel rail lines outside the Tacoma Rail management tower.

After the full cars were hauled to U.S. Oil by Tacoma Rail’s engine, the oil was to be refined into the facility’s products: jet fuel to be shipped by pipeline to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and gasoline, asphalt and other products to be trucked to local facilities or shipped to Alaska.

In an email statement, Nielsen said the refinery “absolutely believes that transportation by rail is safe” for oil.

Alan Matheson, Tacoma Rail’s chief mechanical officer, said the agency’s concern for environmental stewardship goes from limiting locomotive emissions to conducting track inspections more frequently than required to search for defects that could cause a derailment or other train problem.

“We recognize we’re just a cog in the machine that processes this stuff,” Matheson said, “but we take our bit of it very seriously.”

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally