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Time to derail oil train plans

Sometimes it seems like Spokane is Washington’s Captain America, holding a shield with a giant bull’s-eye on it, protecting the rest of the state from bad deals on wheels.

Spokane’s railway legacy should be about Washington products – American products – like wheat, corn, manufactured goods, anything that represents real jobs and our way of life. Instead, we have yet another bad deal getting thrown at us – oil trains clogging these critical arteries of our commerce – and we can see that oil, coal and tar sands companies just see us as a means to a dirty, costly, dangerous, unhealthy and climate-cooking end.

Wednesday, for the third time in barely over a year, Spokane will host a public hearing at which agencies will hear citizen concerns and suggestions on the scope of an environmental impact assessment for another West Side fossil fuel project. If it gets permitted, the proposed oil terminal in Vancouver would send crude elsewhere to be refined.

It’s not even for us. We would get all the risk, none of the reward.

If the crude oil terminal scoping hearing plays out like the two prior hearings over separate coal export terminals near Bellingham and Longview, the litany of concerns agencies hear from citizens will be much the same: Giant unit trains of oil, like unit trains of coal, would impact existing rail infrastructure (with taxpayers paying for said impacts or needed improvements/expansion); increase health risks from diesel particulates; contribute to traffic congestion and slow emergency response; and increase noise pollution, air pollution and environmental risks; and more. 

The topic will be a crude oil terminal, not one for coal, but the potential impacts to Spokane as a rail community are much the same and should be familiar by now. Around the state, more than 300,000 people submitted comments on the two coal terminal projects.

But when talking about shipping crude oil, risk is what keeps people like us up at night. These crude oil trains represent the worst of both worlds: Shale oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota tends to explode during derailments.

There’s risk to the Spokane River and Hangman Creek, to the Rathdrum Prairie-Spokane Valley aquifer, the neighborhoods along the rail lines and the increasingly bustling and economically attractive downtown Spokane core. 

We don’t have to guess what an accident would look like in Spokane.  All we have to do is search Google or YouTube to see the devastation in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, when a train carrying oil from the Bakken fields (the same source of the oil that would be shipped to the Vancouver terminal) derailed in July, devastating a community and killing 47 people.  In early November, another trainload of Bakken oil exploded and derailed in Alabama, distressing a pristine wetlands area and completely surprising a community with no response plan.

Not to alarm you too much, but Spokane isn’t ready either.  In fact, The Spokesman-Review first alerted the public to this in a July 10 editorial, “Quebec derailment shows need for readiness.”

Spokane would be wise to be ready because Vancouver’s might be just the first of several terminals. Proposals for similar facilities are on the rise, with Sightline Institute reporting all the terminals proposed for Washington would mean approximately 12 loaded 100-car crude oil trains a day running through Spokane.

That’s too many trains and dangerous cars, which is why Washington groups, including Spokane Riverkeeper, the Lands Council, ForestEthics and Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, have called on Gov. Jay Inslee, Ecology Director Maia Bellon and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark to declare a moratorium on permits for new oil transport infrastructure, pending a programmatic environmental impact statement that adequately describes the risk the new ports and associated coal and oil train traffic might pose.  The projects, though independent of each other, should be looked at cumulatively to understand the threats to Washington.

When it’s all risk and no reward, it’s all of our responsibility to stand up and protect not just Spokane but the rest of Washington from bad deals on wheels.

Bart Mihailovich is the director of Spokane Riverkeeper. Matt Krogh is a campaign director for ForestEthics.(The hearing begins at 6 p.m. at Center Place, 2426 N. Discovery Place, Spokane Valley.)


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