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Here's How Many 'Bomb Trains' Could Pass Through the Pacific Northwest Every Day

According to a report by the Seattle, Washington-based Sightline Institute, one hundred million barrels of oil could pass through the region each day on the way to refineries and export terminals along the coast.

by Matt Smith
Jul 8 2015, 10:00pm

Image via Transportation Safety Board of Canada

An increase in railroad oil shipments across the Pacific Northwest could mean dozens of crude-laden trains chugging through the region each week, raising the risk of a disastrous accident, a new study warns.

There are 15 refineries or port terminals already running or in the works from Portland to Puget Sound — and if all the proposed projects are completed, they would be able to handle 100 or more trains a week bringing crude from the inland West, the Seattle-based Sightline Institute estimated this week. That could mean one million barrels of oil a day bound for six refineries and nine terminals.

The potential shipments would come on top of the push to export coal and liquefied natural gas to rapidly industrializing Asian markets. US oil companies hope to join that drive, lobbying to lift the 40-year-old ban on shipping American oil overseas.

The Sightline Institute report comes the same week that environmental groups have launched a "week of action" to halt the shipment of crude oil by rail, a practice that has led to some fiery crashes — the worst of which killed 47 people when a runaway freight plunged into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and exploded.

"There's this huge push by the energy industry to open up the Northwest to this kind of seaborne carbon trade to Asia," Eric de Place, the research director for the Seattle-based environmental think tank, told VICE News. "It's a bad idea for a lot of reasons."

Watch the VICE News documentary "The Crude Gamble for Oil: Bomb Trains" Here:

Environmentalists oppose further development of fossil fuels, which release carbon emissions that are driving global climate change. Fishermen are worried about oil spills into the waters that provide their living. Railroad workers, firefighters, and people who live near railroad tracks are worried about their safety. And the same terminals might handle not only oil from North Dakota's Bakken Shale, but the heavy crude extracted from Canada's Alberta tar sands — a far more carbon-intensive product.

"There's a little something for everyone to hate," he said.

The shale-oil boom in the northern Great Plains, where few pipelines have been built, has been accompanied by the occasional boom of a tank car exploding when a train jumps the track. That string of explosive derailments has led critics to dub the shipments "bomb trains."

US officials say there were 141 tank car spills in 2014, more than five times the 30-year annual average. In March, oil trains derailed in Illinois, West Virginia, and Ontario, causing fires and leaving behind big spills that had to be cleaned up. And Monday marked the second anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic crash, the worst bomb-train disaster to date.

A 2014 study by US regulators estimated that 16 million Americans live within a few minutes' walk from tracks carrying those shipments — and a major accident in a populated area could kill 200 people. In May, the US Department of Transportation announced new safety rules that would phase out older, more accident-prone tank cars and lower the speed limits for oil-laden trains, but early response to the new rules was sharply negative.

Those trains mean jobs for workers in the terminals and on the rails. Ron Kaminkow, the general secretary of the labor coalition Railroad Workers United (RWU), told VICE News that his members don't decide what the railroads carry—but they insist it be carried safely.

"The safest way to ship not just oil or coal but anything else is by rail," Kaminkow said. "And the safest way to do it is by an adequately staffed workplace." He said his organization will fight any attempt to cut back staffing and reduce crews to a single operator—as was the case with the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

The railroad behind the Lac-Mégantic disaster has since gone back to two-person crews, but several small railroads are still running trains with a single operator — and larger railroads are eyeing the practice, Kaminkow said.

Related: New charges laid in Canada's Lac-Mégantic rail disaster

Meanwhile, Washington fire chiefs demanded and got a meeting with executives of the state's largest railroad, BNSF, which delivers crude from North Dakota's Bakken Shale to refineries around Tacoma. The chiefs wanted BNSF to share "vital information" on worst-case crash scenarios, emergency planning and routes, which BNSF agreed to share with public agencies, their state association reported in May.

And RWU officials have held community meetings in two Washington cities to discuss the issue, along with environmentalists and other concerned groups.

"There's very fertile ground for us to be on the same side," Kaminkow said. "We're all concerned about safety in one form or another."

In a written statement to VICE News, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace said it expects rail volumes to grow in the coming years — but that will depend on the market, which may or may not justify building the facilities that the Sightline Institute cites.

"BNSF was not contacted to participate in the study, and Sightline's agenda against fossil fuels in widely known," Wallace said. "A lot of misleading train numbers has been manufactured by opponents, and this study is yet another example of that."

BNSF is spending $6 billion this year on safety, which Wallace called "the driving force behind our work each and every day," and has spent $500 million in Washington alone over the past three years. Most key routes get inspected four times a week, the busiest lines are checked out daily, and the company has specialized hazardous-material teams ready to respond across the region, she said.

Related: String of 'bomb train' explosions in the US and Canada casts doubt on proposed safety upgrades

But de Place told VICE News that crude oil "is fundamentally not safe for rail transport" and a product that the world needs to give up.

"We are burning too much carbon, and we need to transition away from carbon in a rational and incremental fashion," he said. "To do that, we should stop building new oil infrastructure and new coal infrastructure." 

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl