Fears about oil train safety, impacts voiced at hearing
A proposal to ship North Dakota crude oil through Spokane by train drew mostly opponents at a hearing Wednesday night.
About 75 people showed up for the state hearing on a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver that could result in up to four oil trains daily passing through Spokane.
“I see the trains go over the Latah Creek Bridge from my patio,” said Pauline Druffel, a retired psychotherapist, who lives less than a mile away.
Besides concerns about public safety and the potential for oil spills in the Spokane River, “my primary resistance is global warming,” she told members of Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. “It’s insane that we keep taking this stuff out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere.”
Other speakers echoed Druffel’s comments on climate change. Several alluded to the July derailment of an unattended train carrying North Dakota crude that caused an explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.
They urged the council to consider worst-case scenarios, including the possibility of a derailment and explosion in an urban area or a massive oil spill along the Columbia River.
The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is reviewing Tesoro-Savage’s proposal for an oil terminal that would receive between 120,000 and 360,000 barrels of oil daily. The crude oil would be shipped from the Port of Vancouver to U.S. refineries on the West Coast.
Tesoro-Savage’s application for the Vancouver terminal is the largest of seven applications for oil terminals in Western Washington. Other facilities are proposed for Grays Harbor, Ferndale, Cherry Point and Anacortes, and several Washington refineries are already receiving rail shipments of North Dakota crude.
As a regional rail hub, Spokane would be heavily impacted if all those terminals were built, said Bart Mihailovich, director for the Spokane Riverkeeper program. The Spokane Riverkeeper and 11 other Washington organizations sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee this week, urging a moratorium on new oil terminals until comprehensive study is done.
Kelly Flint, senior vice president for Savage Cos., a partner in the proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver, said the project would benefit the region.
West Coast refineries want access to North Dakota crude, which is being used to replace declines in oil production from Alaska’s North Slope and California, Flint said in an interview before the hearing. Without a major pipeline from the Midwest to the West Coast, companies are turning to railroads for shipping crude oil to refineries and ports.
In addition to creating jobs in Washington, the Vancouver terminal aligns with national goals for energy independence, Flint said.
“It’s a stable source of domestic crude,” he said. “It helps provide gasoline and jet fuel – things we need for our economy.”
The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will require Tesoro-Savage to complete a study of environmental impacts. In addition to Wednesday’s hearing, members of the public may submit written comments through Dec. 18.
“This is an opportunity for the public to tell us what their concerns are and what we should be looking at when we develop the environmental impact statement,” said Stephen Posner, interim director for the site evaluation council, which is made up of representatives from various state agencies.
After the EIS is complete, the site evaluation council will make a recommendation to Inslee on whether the terminal should be built.
The council is tasked with issuing a recommendation within one year of Tesoro-Savage’s August application, though extensions are sometimes granted, Posner said. Inslee’s office then has 60 days to make the final decision.
Environmental groups have also raised concerns about the potential for oil spills along hundreds of miles of railroad track in Eastern Washington, noting that most of the state’s oil spill preparedness is geared toward tankers in Puget Sound.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done on the inland side of the state,” Dale Jensen, spill program manager for the state Department of Ecology, said in a recent phone interview. “Railroads will say they’ve been moving oil forever, but this is the first time they’ve moved unit trains of oil through the state.”
The state doesn’t have the authority to regulate rail oil shipments when they’re in transit. That falls to the Federal Railroad Administration, Jensen said. But the state does work cooperatively with the railroads and federal, tribal and local authorities on joint spill prevention and response planning.
In addition, state officials are working with railroads to identify the resources along train routes that would be at risk if a spill occurred, including critical fisheries and historic and cultural sites.
“We’re encouraging the oil companies – because it’s their product being carried – to use their influence to help railroads improve their standards,” Jensen said. “Nobody wants to have a spill.”
Tesoro-Savage won’t actually be an owner of the crude oil, said Flint, the vice president for Savage Cos. However, “we have great confidence in the BNSF and Union Pacific, the two railroads that serve the Port of Vancouver,” he said. “They do operate to the highest standards.”
Patrick Brady heads up BNSF Railway Corp.’s emergency response for hazardous materials. Last year, the railroad hauled 1.4 million shipments of hazardous materials. During four derailments, partial releases of hazardous waste from 15 shipments occurred, he said.
“We just don’t have that many,” Brady told the council Wednesday night.
In addition, BNSF has not had a fatal accident involving hazardous materials on its northern routes since the early 1980s, a company spokesman said.