There’s no escaping the rumble of freight trains in Nick Linden’s office.
He’s one of the owners of Vic B. Linden Sign Advertising Inc. at 122 S. Lincoln St., which shares a wall with the elevated train tracks that carry crude oil through downtown Spokane.
For more than six decades, the commercial sign company and the rail tracks have been neighbors.
“They’re right overhead,” Linden said. “We see a lot of things going by, from airplane fuselages to automotive parts.”
Now, two to three oil trains are part of the daily freight traffic. In the event of a derailment, tank cars carrying flammable Bakken crude could come crashing down on the low brick building that has housed the sign company since 1952. The possibility of a fiery train wreck has occurred to Linden, though it’s not something he dwells on during the day-to-day demands of running a business.
“It’s not that we have our heads in the sand. There are obvious issues with oil trains,” he said. But most of the time, “we’re busy helping our customers.”
More than a mile of elevated train tracks runs through the heart of Spokane, a legacy of the city’s 100-plus years as a rail hub linking the Northern Plains to the West Coast.
The elevated tracks pass by – and sometimes above – restaurants, hotels, banks, hair salons, retailers and automotive shops. The proximity of the tracks to Spokane’s most densely populated area makes the downtown particularly vulnerable in the event of an oil train derailment, said Michael Hildebrand, a hazardous materials and emergency planning consultant for the city of Spokane.
Hildebrand testified last week before the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is reviewing a proposed oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington. If built as proposed, the terminal could funnel up to four additional oil trains daily through Spokane.
The Spokane Fire Department and mutual aid crews might be able to control a derailment in sparsely populated areas of the city, Hildebrand said in written testimony.
But a downtown derailment would pose “extreme challenges,” said Hildebrand, a partner in Florida-based Hildebrand and Noll Associates.
Emergency responders simultaneously could be dealing with a fire, the threat of exploding tank cars, an oil spill and the evacuation of tens of thousands of people without the telecommunication capacity to rapidly notify everyone. Alert Spokane, the community’s reverse 911 system, is limited to 7,000 calls per hour.
Risk of fireball,
In a number of downtown locations, a derailment could result in burning tanker cars on top of buildings, Hildebrand wrote.
If a derailment occurred a block to the east of Linden’s shop, train cars could fall onto the roof of Hotel Ruby 2, a boutique hotel at 123 S. Post St., which is also adjacent to the tracks.
Fire would be an immediate threat. If a single tank car carrying 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude punctured and rapidly ignited, emergency responders could expect a fireball more than 600 feet in diameter.
The Davenport Tower, which is adjacent to Hotel Ruby 2, would be at risk from the flames. Everyone working or living within a 1-mile radius of the accident would have to be evacuated, Hildebrand said.
Hotel Ruby’s management did not respond to a request for comment on the hotel’s potential to be in the path of falling train cars.
Walt Worthy, owner of the Davenport Tower, said he wasn’t aware the consultant had used his hotel to illustrate how an oil train fire could affect downtown landmarks.
“I’m sure it would be bad for business,” he said.
Local emergency responders have been working to prepare for an oil train derailment since 2014, when Hildebrand – who is nationally known for his work – was hired to review the city of Spokane’s and Spokane County’s response plans and make recommendations.
“Spokane is really on the leading edge in terms of preparation,” said Brian Schaeffer, Spokane’s assistant fire chief, who also testified at the state hearing in Olympia last week.
The preparation has included sending 21 Spokane firefighters to free training on oil spills and fires offered by the Association of American Railroads in Pueblo, Colorado.
However, “I think everybody can agree that if this project (the oil terminal) goes through, shipments of crude oil will go up,” Schaeffer said. “Statistically … it’s an eventuality that we’re going to have a derailment.”
The Vancouver Energy Terminal would be one of the largest in the nation, receiving up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken region and Alberta’s tar sands. The $210 million terminal would be a joint venture between Tesoro Corp., a petroleum refiner, and Savage Companies, a shipping firm. Oil from rail cars would be unloaded at the terminal and barged down the Columbia River en route to West Coast refineries.
At least 27 oil trains have derailed in the U.S. and Canada in the past 10 years, often leading to fires, explosions and environmental damage, according to the Associated Press. In previous testimony, BNSF Railway, which ships most of the crude oil moving through Spokane, has touted its safety record for moving hazardous materials, saying the overall rate of accidents is low.
If Gov. Jay Inslee ultimately approves the new oil terminal, Schaeffer said he thinks the owners and shippers of the crude oil should share local communities’ costs in preparing for a derailment.
They should “help give communities the tools to be successful in handling a bad day, if one happens with their product,” he said.
If a train derailed and caught fire in downtown Spokane, the first two hours of attack would be critical, Hildebrand said. Firefighters would bring out their biggest hoses, spraying 1,000 gallons of water per minute on adjacent rail cars to keep them cool in an effort to keep the fire from spreading to additional tankers.
Most people assume that large quantities of foam are used to fight oil train fires, but that’s not always the case, Schaeffer said.
During the June derailment of an oil train in Mosier, Oregon, efforts focused on containing the fire while allowing the fuel in the engulfed cars to burn off. That reduces the risk of crude oil polluting nearby waterways, which for Spokane would include the aquifer that provides drinking water for local residents, Schaeffer said.
However, if lives were at risk from the fire, foam would be used in suppression efforts, he said.
The Spokane Fire Department inventoried all of its foam supplies as part of its preparedness, documenting about 1,500 gallons in fire engines, other vehicles and caches at fire stations. Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base could supply additional foam if firefighters needed more.
If no lives are at risk, keeping spilled oil from getting into the city’s storm drains would be a top priority for emergency responders. In addition to the potential for oil to reach the Spokane River and its interconnected aquifer, underground fires are a concern, Schaeffer said.
“We’ve had burning liquid from vehicle fires spilling into the storm sewers,” he said.
Those fires are difficult to put out, and there’s the potential for the flames to encounter pockets of methane gas and cause explosions, he said.
“If we have a problem, we don’t want it to spread to other locations,” he said.
Evacuation no easy task
Evacuating parts of downtown also would be a huge task for emergency responders.
“Our downtown really swells during the day,” Schaeffer said. “Some of those people would not be able to drive. Some would not be able to get to their cars. How would we notify those people on which way they should go?”
Buses would be used to move high-risk populations, including the elderly and people with medical problems. But the ability to provide rapid notification to an evacuation list that could include schools, hospitals, assisted living centers and workplaces is beyond the capability of Alert Spokane.
Spokane County’s emergency management group has started looking into other systems that could handle the load, Schaeffer said.
The Energy Facilities Siting Council, which oversees major energy projects in Washington, will eventually make a recommendation to Inslee about whether the Vancouver terminal should be built.
There is no timeline for the 10-member council to act, but once the recommendation has been made, the governor has 60 days to either approve or reject the recommendation, or to send the project back to the council for further review.
“We won’t be able to shut the oil trains down nor should we probably focus on doing that,” Schaeffer said. “We should focus on protecting the environment and protecting the safety of people.”
As an emergency responder, Schaeffer said that’s the message he tried to get across to members of the Energy Facility Siting Council last week. Through collaborative efforts, including providing additional training and resources for communities, there are ways to help reduce the risks to local residents, he said.
“Moving forward to me means making Spokane and our region a lot more prepared for an emergency if one does happen,” he said.