A string of train accidents involving crude oil shipments in the U.S. and Canada is causing uneasiness in Spokane and other communities bisected by railways. And the safety of rail cars and hazardous cargo is under intensifying scrutiny.
With the number of oil trains from the upper Great Plains expected to increase through the Spokane area, the risk of spills and potentially deadly fires is a growing concern, City Council President Ben Stuckart said.
“These are almost moving bombs,” Stuckart said. “They’re carrying highly explosive material.”
Spokane is a pinch point for rail traffic through the region. The tracks for BNSF Railway Co., a major oil hauler, cross the Spokane River, pass near schools and cut through downtown beside retail centers, office towers, hospitals and Interstate 90.
At least one fully loaded oil train – which can stretch as long as 130 cars – snakes through Spokane each day. But with West Side refineries and terminals ramping up to receive more of the black bounty, these shipments could become far more frequent.
Federal officials recently warned that oil from the booming Bakken shale field in North Dakota and Montana is more flammable than previously known, raising the anxiety level.
Stuckart wants city leaders to support tougher federal safety standards for moving crude oil by rail, including the use of new tank cars that can better survive derailments and lower train speeds in metro areas.
In the city’s downtown core, freight train speeds drop to as low as 10 to 25 mph, according to BNSF Railway Co.
Local residents have been focused on harmful dust blowing off coal trains from Wyoming and Montana, but oil by rail is a greater worry, Stuckart said. “I find that this has now become a bigger issue if we look at the potential harm in a derailment accident,” he said.
As many as 22 full and empty oil trains a day could soon traverse Northwest railways, according to a recent market 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.
Major spills and fires are rare on North American rail lines, and the industry says it’s pumping billions of dollars into upgrades and safety improvements.
“We invest in training, technology, track improvements, equipment – all of this leads to a safe railroad,” said Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman in Seattle. “One incident is too many, and we learn from all of these that occurred. … Our goal is not to have any incidents.”
Four oil-related rail accidents since last summer – two in the past three weeks – have renewed calls for safety improvements. Railroad and oil industry executives said Thursday they’d take steps to reduce accidents, including analyzing the risks of oil trains and maybe slowing down the trains in populated areas.
On Dec. 30, a BNSF train carrying crude oil crashed into a derailed train in North Dakota, triggering explosions and a fire that prompted about 1,400 residents to flee a nearby town. Eight days later, a train loaded with crude oil and propane derailed in Canada’s New Brunswick province, leading to another evacuation.
What truly rattled rail towns across the continent was the crash and horrific explosion last July that killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings in the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
“I don’t think it’s being hyperbolic or fear-mongering to say we should be really worried about that,” said Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline. “I think the potential loss of life is so staggering that we need to be extremely concerned.”
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