Opinion Columns & Blogs

Stand together to protect region from oil-train disasters

Across North America, we’ve seen news coverage of exploding oil trains in North Dakota, West Virginia, Virginia, Quebec and elsewhere that burned for days and devastated nearby communities.

No explosions so far have occurred in densely populated areas like Tacoma and Seattle, but with 15 mile-long trains now hauling highly flammable crude through Pierce and King Counties each week –and projected to increase to 45 each week by 2020 — the risk is escalating.

We have had our near misses: Last year, oil cars derailed in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, close to homes, Puget Sound, major transportation corridors and a regional trail. Those same trains carry highly flammable crude through Pierce County, past schools, along waterways and through downtowns, including Tacoma.

As elected leaders, we will continue to do all we can to make sure our emergency management systems are ready in case of an explosion or spill. Butthose who benefit from oil transport — the railroads, shippers and refiners — must commit resources for training, equipment and response. Most important, we must prevent these disasters from occurring in the first place.

That’s the goal of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, a coalition of more than 160 elected leaders across five Western states and British Columbia committed to protecting communities from this increasing threat to our people, our economy and our environment.

In addition to the obvious risk to public safety, the surge in oil-by-rail traffic also causes long lines at railroad crossings in downtown areas and along waterfronts. It makes it more difficult for local farmers and manufacturers to get their products to market. And it means less room on our limited rails for passenger trains. Add train traffic projected to serve proposed coal export terminals near Bellingham and Longview, and we have a recipe for congestion and delays.

While alliance members come from communities large and small, urban and rural, we are united in our goal to shine a light on the full risks, costs, and impacts of surging oil transport and proposed coal export. We have jointly advocated for stronger federal and state oil transport safety requirements, and we’re starting to see progress.

U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray — leaders in calling for stronger federal protections — introduced the Crude by Rail Safety Act in March. Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an oil transportation bill that will increase the number of state railroad inspectors, require railroads hauling crude to demonstrate the ability to pay for cleanup, and require oil refineries to share information about the type and volume of oil with both the state Department of Ecology and local first responders.

This law is a crucial first step, and we will continue to advocate for legislation that protects coastal communities and Puget Sound from oil spills.

We have much more work to do, but the fact that our state’s sharply divided Legislature passed new safety regulations with bipartisan support demonstrates the progress we’re making. Just this week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that they will require a more rigorous review of Tesoro-Savage’s proposal to build the largest facility of its kind in the United States on the Columbia River.

This truly is a regional issue, with rail lines and barges bringing risk of explosion and spill into our backyards and local waterways. Get involved: Comment, testify and speak out for what you cherish in your community. The schedule for public meetings will be posted on the kingcounty.gov/sela website.

The long-term solution is to take advantage of our region’s proven ability to nurture innovative companies and establish Puget Sound as the hub for clean, safe energy solutions. By working together across city, tribal, county, state and national borders, we will continue to deliver results that ensure the long-term health and safety of the communities we serve.

King County Executive Dow Constantine is chairman of the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, which includes elected leaders in Pierce County.