The Spokane Valley City Council chamber was packed on Tuesday evening as city manager Mike Jackson presented his summary of the draft environmental impact statement submitted by Tesoro, which is proposing a new petroleum terminal in Vancouver, Washington.
Though omitted from the list of affected municipalities in the draft EIS, the Valley is especially sensitive to the increase in train traffic the new terminal could bring. There are 17 railroad crossings within city limits, as well as two in nearby Millwood.
Jackson said he was disappointed in the solutions offered in the study. His presentation was in advance of a public hearing on the Vancouver Energy Terminal’s draft environmental statement Thursday evening in Spokane Valley.
“The recommendation is for the railroad to meet with the state and the city to try and figure it out,” Jackson said. “That’s what we have been doing for the last 12 years, and it hasn’t been working.”
Jackson said Spokane Valley may see 2,290 new one-way train trips per year if the terminal is built in Vancouver.
Jackson said the railroad has placed the burden of responding to potential spills and wrecks on communities along its tracks, challenging local emergency responders.
Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins said the department would require regional and state mobilization in case of a railroad accident leading to an explosion and a fire.
“We don’t have places to shelter the number of people we’d have to shelter, especially if there’s a fire,” Collins said. The fire department would also need backup in order to respond to ordinary calls while dealing with a railroad accident.
“Heart attacks don’t stop; people still expect us to show up when they call,” Collins said.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said in a phone interview Wednesday that he will be testifying at the hearing Thursday night. Stuckart said the Spokane City Council was the first on the West Coast to unanimously pass a resolution expressing concern about oil trains in January 2014. An increase in train traffic through the downtown core is huge concern, Stuckart said.
“Our overpasses downtown are old and not up to date, and there are no plans to replace them,” Stuckart said. “My concern is also the huge risk of spills and explosions.”
Because the tracks run through downtown Spokane, on overpasses, more lines can’t be added.
“Agriculture is our biggest industry out here and during harvest we hit capacity at 78 trains a day,” Stuckart said. “Every oil train coming through would replace one of those. It’s a huge economic concern.”
Railroad crossings in the Valley has been a concern for years
BNSF Railway and Union Pacific both have tracks running through Spokane Valley. City staff has identified 11 heavily trafficked BNSF crossings within city limits, nine of which are at grade.
The last comprehensive study of how to best integrate train and road traffic in the Valley was conducted in 2006 by the Spokane Regional Transportation Council. Often referred to as “Bridging the Valley,” it mapped out rail crossings and identified those that would most benefit from a grade separation.
That study, however, assumed that BNSF and Union Pacific would use the same tracks, a solution that has gained no traction since then. Union Pacific’s tracks run south of BNSF’s tracks between Millwood and Athol.
Jackson said the biggest impacts of increased train traffic would be air pollution from idling cars waiting at railroad crossings, traffic backups and more air pollution and noise from the trains.
Spokane Valley residents have complained for years about trains blowing their horns day and night, but only one quiet zone has been established. Engineers are required by federal law to blow the whistle before entering a public railroad crossing. In 2011, Spokane Valley decided against paying $83,000 for a study of potential quiet zones. Without the city acting on that issue, nothing will change as a private person can’t petition the railroad.
No funding has been identified to pay for grade separations. An overpass at Barker Road, would cost nearly $30 million. A similar overpass at Park Road would be $19.3 million. If the city is able to pass a bond, the annual payment would be $1.8 million just for the Barker Road overpass.
Tuesday evening, Jackson reminded the council that the city would have a hard time making such a bond payment.
Train traffic estimates are overstated, BNSF says
The public hearing lasted about 45 minutes. Terry Finn, who spoke on behalf of BNSF, said the number of trains seemed “overestimated” and that the railroad has made many improvements in safety equipment. BNSF has also purchased its own safer tanker cars for highly volatile liquids like the Bakken crude that would be headed to the terminal in Vancouver.
Railroad union representative Dan Fritze said that transporting oil by train is much safer than shipping it by truck.
“Vancouver Energy, who will be building this facility, is very responsible,” Fritze said.
Matt Gill, external affairs manager for Tesoro Alaska Co., said the new terminal is a $210 million investment by Tesoro that will create 320 full-time jobs during construction, and an estimated 500 jobs once it’s up and running.
But the Lands Council’s Mike Petersen said any economic benefit isn’t worth the environmental risk.
“Spokane Valley will not gain anything from this, except increased train traffic,” Petersen said.
Spokane Valley resident Jennie Willardson said any jobs created will undoubtedly benefit Vancouver.
“But the cost of cleanup after a spill or a fire all falls on us,” Willardson said. “Very few jobs will be created here. It’s not going to have a positive impact for our community.”
Several speakers mentioned concern for the aquifer and also the air pollution caused by the trains, and the devastating impact an actual derailment and fire would have on the community.
Spokane Valley City Council members agree that bridging the Valley is a high priority, but don’t agree how to pay for it. Attempts at securing state funding have failed and there are no federal funds in sight.
Council member Chuck Hafner said last week that the only solution may be a bond, and in fiscally conservative Spokane Valley that may be difficult.
“I hope it doesn’t take a serious accident before people wake up and realize what’s going on,” Hafner said, last week.
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