About 50 people attended a rally Wednesday at Riverfront Park, urging state officials to consider how shipping more crude oil through Western Washington ports would affect rail traffic and public safety in Spokane.
At the Port of Grays Harbor, operators of two oil terminals have proposed major expansions. If Imperium Renewables’ and Westway Terminal Co.’s plans are approved, more than 1,100 trains could pass through the Inland Northwest each year, hauling up to 48 million barrels of crude to the terminals, or returning empty tankers to the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Eastern Montana.
Since Spokane is a major hub for rail traffic, that would mean three oil trains daily through the city and its neighboring communities. Currently, Spokane is averaging at least one oil train per day, according to rail officials.
“It’s an increase in the number of bomb trains through our community,” said Spokane Council President Ben Stuckart, referring to the flammable crude that’s caused explosions, evacuations and 48 deaths in a series of high-profile derailments in Canada and the U.S. over the past year.
“More bomb trains mean more threats to our river. More bomb trains mean more risks to our first responders,” he said.
Those threats should be considered in the environmental impact statements required for each project, Stuckart and others said. They urged people at the rally to contact the Department of Ecology, asking for a broadly crafted impact statement.
BNSF Railway Co., which would transport most of the crude, has defended its safety record. In past interviews, railroad officials said releases of hazardous materials are rare.
Environmental groups had success in a similar campaign for a proposed Bellingham coal terminal. State and local regulators agreed to study the global-warming effects of burning the exported coal in Asia and rail impacts from shipping the coal from the Rockies and across Washington.
“If we’re loud and united in our message, we can make a difference,” Stuckart told the crowd.
Wednesday’s rally was organized by the Spokane Riverkeeper and Washington Environmental Council. They had asked the state to hold a hearing on the terminal expansion in Spokane.
“We tried to get an official hearing,” Spokane Riverkeeper’s Bart Mihailovich said. When that got turned down, “we decided to hold a people’s hearing.”
He invited people at the rally to step up to the mic. Greg Gower, who enjoys writing songs with political satire, performed “Everybody gets an Oil Train.”
Brook Beeler, an Ecology Department spokeswoman, said the agency opted not to hold a Spokane hearing because most public comments are submitted by email or mail, as opposed to testimony at hearings. Comments will be accepted through Tuesday.
“We want people to be engaged in the public process and we want the feedback,” she said in an interview before the rally.
Bart Haggin, of Spokane, and his wife, Lindell, both wrote post cards to send to the Ecology Department.
“Seeing these explosions is pretty devastating, and you don’t even want to think about something like that happening here,” Lindell Haggin said.
Idaho cities also are concerned about the crude oil shipments, said Susan Drumheller of the Idaho Conservation League. Before the rail tankers reach Spokane, they travel across Lake Pend Oreille, through Sandpoint and across the Rathdrum Prairie. “We’re at the north end of the funnel,” Drumheller said.
The Grays Harbor projects are among several expansions or new terminals proposed in the Northwest. As many as 22 full and empty oil trains could pass through Spokane daily if all of the new terminals are built or expanded, according to an analysis by Sightline Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Seattle. That’s based on 100-car trains with each car holding 700 barrels of crude.