There is no fail-safe way of protecting Spokane from an oil train derailment and explosion.
No speed limit, no tanker car, no track – no matter how designed, manufactured or inspected – can provide a 100 percent assurance that an equipment failure or human error will not result in a catastrophe in downtown Spokane, where thousands work downhill from the overpasses, or in Spokane Valley, which overlays our drinking water.
But dangerous substances, from propane to industrial and agricultural chemicals, pass through the area daily. Most of us do not think of the risks, and would not call a halt to all train or truck traffic if we did.
Clearly, though, the train traffic that could result from the multitude of proposals for refining or trans-shipping of oil from the Bakken formations of North Dakota to the West Coast would substantially increase the odds of a major accident.
Yet a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed Vancouver Energy Terminal prepared for the Washington Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council says hazardous materials reach their destination safely 99.9 percent of the time. The risk of spilling 20,000 barrels of oil is “improbable;” occurring only every 12,000 to 22,000 years.
Nonsense. A railroad tank car holds 700 to 750 barrels. That 20,000 barrels can be transported in fewer than 30 tank cars, less than one-fourth the number in a unit train. The explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 involved less than one-half that much Bakken oil.
That was three years ago, not 12,000.
That kind of math from Environmental Research Consulting, which prepared the draft environmental impact statement, is unsettling, but perhaps to be expected from a firm with BNSF Railway as a client.
For its part, the railroad has agreed to several conditions in transporting oil, including frequency of track inspections, more hot bearing detectors, the removal of defective cars and whole-train inspections in the event emergency brakes are applied.
However, the conditions would allow an oil train to be unattended, which caused the Lac-Megantic accident, and trains through Spokane and other urban areas would be allowed to roll at 35 mph – too fast.
The most fragile cars would not have to be replaced until Jan. 1, 2018. They should be sidelined now.
Emergency responders would get special training and GPS equipment that would enable them to locate crude oil trains.
Those are the issues that most worry those of us who live along the corridor between Spokane and Sandpoint, the single-track “choke point” for most east-west trains.
Residents will have the chance to voice those and other concerns at a Thursday EFSEC meeting starting at 5 p.m. in the CenterPlace Regional Event Center in Spokane Valley. We are not convinced the draft EIS is all it should be, but are also aware the federal government regulates interstate railroads, and the state has minimal leverage.
Bakken crude is unusually volatile, and every reasonable measure should be taken to protect those in Vancouver, and along the railroad right-of-way.
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