Last year, a train carrying crude oil from North Dakota chugged across Eastern Washington en route to a Puget Sound refinery.
The oil train was the first for the region, but oil shipments through Spokane could become common in the future.
The state of Washington has received a flurry of applications for terminals that would accept crude oil shipped by rail from North Dakota’s booming shale-oil fields. The crude oil would be refined in the Northwest or loaded onto tankers for other West Coast destinations.
Many of the oil trains would pass through Spokane on their way to Western Washington. For Jon Snyder, a Spokane city councilman, that raises questions about spills and public safety, particularly in light of the July derailment of an unattended oil train in Quebec that caused an explosion killing 47 people.
“With so many people living and working by the (Spokane rail) viaduct, it’s important to know all the potential impacts,” said Snyder, who also cited delays at rail crossings from increased train traffic as a concern.
State officials will hold a public meeting Wednesday in Spokane Valley to discuss the largest of seven proposed oil terminals – the Tesoro-Savage project at the Port of Vancouver. The terminal would receive up to 360,000 gallons of oil daily. Estimated traffic through Spokane from the facility is four oil trains daily, each 120 cars long.
Wednesday’s meeting was scheduled after requests from Snyder and City Council members Ben Stuckart and Amber Waldref, the Spokane Riverkeeper and other environmental groups.
Bart Mihailovich, of Spokane Riverkeeper, expects a strong turnout at the meeting. Many people have questions, particularly since the region is already grappling with separate proposals to ship coal from Wyoming and Montana by rail to Northwest ports for export to Asia, he said.
“We don’t know what that full picture looks like for Spokane, and now we’d be adding additional trains,” Mihailovich said. “The state’s not ready for all of this.”
Tesoro-Savage officials outlined the business case for the terminal in an application letter to Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
Railroads are an attractive option for hauling oil because U.S. crude oil production is growing in many areas that aren’t well served by pipelines, officials said in the letter. On the West Coast, the oil shipments would replace declines in production from Alaska’s North Slope and California’s oil fields, and more expensive foreign oil imports, the letter said.
But Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute in Seattle, said the state isn’t prepared for the capacity being proposed. If all seven proposed oil terminals are built in Western Washington, they could handle 785,000 barrels of oil daily. “That’s bigger than a lot of pipelines,” de Place said.
That volume raises questions about the region’s rail capacity, particularly with the other proposals for coal trains through the Northwest, he said.
In addition, the potential for oil spills along hundreds of miles of railroad track is a concern to both de Place and Mihailovich.
Most of the state’s preparedness for oil spills is geared toward pipelines and oil tankers in Puget Sound, which is how the most oil has been moved in Washington, they said. The majority of the funding for the spills program comes from a barrel tax on crude oil brought into Washington by vessels.
“It’s not clear to me that the state has adequate measures in place to deal with the risk of oil spills all along this huge distributed rail network, where you could threaten the Spokane River,” de Place said.
The state has spill response programs to protect inland waters, said Lisa Copeland, a Department of Ecology spokeswoman. But given the increase in crude oil transported by rail, the agency has been working on additional prevention and response measures related to oil trains, she said. The work includes a $650,000 supplemental budget request to the governor for a rail-oil spill risk package.
A spokesman for BNSF Railway, which would be moving most of the oil, said the company is committed to safety and accident prevention.
Of the hazardous materials transported by the railroad, “99.99 percent makes it to its destination incident-free, without a release,” said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman.
This year, BNSF spent $125 million on track upgrades in Washington, including $30 million on the rail lines between the Idaho-Washington border and Pasco, he said. BNSF also hosts workshops for local emergency responders to provide hazmat training, he said.
Melonas would not discuss how many oil trains are currently moving through Spokane. However, in an Associated Press interview in October, another BNSF official said the railroad current handles 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day across its entire network. Most of that oil is headed to other parts of the country.
In the Pacific Northwest, “we average over one train per day to this area,” said Roxanne Butler, a BNSF spokeswoman.