Communities not prepared for risks of crude oil train derailments, Congress told


Seattle's emergency management director testified in the Senate Wednesday that three crude oil trains a week are passing through downtown Seattle, seen here Oct. 22, 2013, but that frequency could increase to three a day once refineries in Washington state are ready to receive them. TISH WELLS — MCT
Seattle’s emergency management director testified in the Senate Wednesday that three crude oil trains a week are passing through downtown Seattle, seen here Oct. 22, 2013, but that frequency could increase to three a day once refineries in Washington state are ready to receive them. TISH WELLS — MCT



WASHINGTON, D.C. – Emergency response officials told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday, April 9, that big cities and small towns alike are unprepared for a disaster on the scale of an oil train derailment and fire last year in Quebec that destroyed part of a town and killed 47 people.

The hearing was only the second on Capitol Hill in recent weeks that sought the perspective of local officials. The federal government has regulatory authority over rail shipments, but the burden of emergency response ultimately falls on local agencies.

The specter of a large-scale crude oil fire and spill has hung over communities across the country since July’s crash in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where firefighters were simply outmatched by the scale and ferocity of the blaze.

“We can handle everyday emergencies,” said Timothy Pellerin, the fire chief of Rangeley, Maine, whose department assisted in the Quebec derailment. “We’re not prepared for a major disaster like this.”

Urban fire departments may have more resources and personnel, but the scale of the threat is a challenge for them, too.

Barb Graff, director of the Seattle Office of Emergency Management, said three loaded crude oil trains a week pass through the city, but that the frequency could increase to three per day when refineries are able to receive them.

“There’s an imbalance when we increase the hazard but we don’t increase the ability of the local community to deal with that hazard,” Graff testified.

The hearing in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies, was led by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Crude oil shipments not only cross both states in trains, they also cross the border into Canada on North America’s virtually seamless rail network.

In Western Washington, BNSF trains have been hauling crude to the BP Cherry Point refinery on the main line through Bellingham and Ferndale since December 2013. The smaller Phillips 66 refinery to the south expects to begin receiving oil shipments by the end of 2014.

The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes has been getting crude oil by rail since September 2012, and the Anacortes Shell refinery is planning a crude oil rail terminal as well.

Murray said the shipments in Washington state are expected to triple to 55 million barrels this year, and that’s “only the tip of the iceberg.”


Pellerin’s department was one of seven in Maine to assist in Lac-Megantic. He testified that crossing the border into Canada, he could see the plumes of smoke 30 miles away.

They were confronted by multiple problems on arrival. He testified that his radios were not compatible with Canadian frequencies, nor were fire hose couplings in sync. And the Maine firefighters needed an interpreter because their Quebec colleagues spoke only French.

Pellerin said 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam had to be trucked in from a refinery in Toronto, which took several hours.

Neither the railroad nor the oil companies involved in the derailment had a disaster plan, he said. He also said he learned only two weeks ago that the crude oil in the tank cars had been improperly identified.

Pellerin said three railroad representatives arrived in Lac-Megantic on the day of the derailment, took some pictures and left. The company filed for bankruptcy and was sold in December.

“They need to be held responsible for it,” he testified.


Graff said regional emergency managers met with representatives of BNSF Railway recently to discuss the impact of crude oil shipments in Washington state. BNSF, based in Fort Worth, Texas, is the nation’s largest hauler of crude oil in trains and operates routes through Washington state’s major population centers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution last month that presses railroads to disclose the volume, frequency and contents of shipments. Railroads are not currently required to do so.

The resolution also calls for an “aggressive” phase-out of older model tank cars known as DOT-111s, which were known to be vulnerable to punctures and ruptures in derailments well before they were pressed into service hauling crude oil and ethanol.

When asked when his department would finish new regulations for tank cars, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told the panel, “We are not going to wait until 2015,” but wouldn’t commit to a specific date. The pace of the rulemaking has frustrated lawmakers on Capitol Hill, as well as state and local officials.

Ed Murray said lawmakers would continue to press the department to move swiftly.

“We certainly are not dropping this topic,” he said. “This is an issue that has to be addressed.”

Grays Harbor Crude Oil Terminals Blocked

Board holds projects need full evaluation of “oil spill risks, increase in rail and vessel traffic, and location of expanded facilities in areas of known natural resource and cultural sensitivity.”

Source: Earth Justice, November 13, 2013

Olympia, WA  — The Washington Shorelines Hearings Board reversed permits for two crude oil shipping terminals in Grays Harbor, Washington for failure to address significant public safety and environmental issues. The projects cannot go forward until full and detailed environmental reviews assess all individual and cumulative impacts, according to the final decision released late yesterday.

The Quinault Indian Nation and conservation groups argued that regulatory agencies failed to adequately evaluate the risks of oil spills from trains or marine vessels that would expose tribal fishing rights, commercial and recreational fishing and shellfishing, and the economy and environment of Grays Harbor to major harm.

The Board agreed with petitioners Quinault Indian Nation, Friends of Grays Harbor, Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Grays Harbor Audubon, and Citizens for a Clean Harbor that moving hundreds of oil-laden trains and ships through Washington demands full and public environmental review.

Quote from Fawn Sharp, President, Quinault Indian Nation:

“We applaud the decision by the Shoreline Hearings Board to reverse the permit for the crude oil shipping terminals.

“Those permits should have never been issued in the first place. The shipping terminals would be a clear violation of public safety as well as treaty-protected rights. The public trust should not be jeopardized in this manner. Neither should the water nor other environmental resources upon which we all depend. Far more jobs would be lost when the inevitable spills occur than would be gained from the development of the proposed oil terminals. It is the responsibility of the Shoreline Hearings Board and all public entities to take a strong stand against these terminals and all such projects that would diminish the quality of life in our region.

“Good public policy demands that decision makers assess ultimate and cumulative impacts of their decisions and mitigate any potential harm to the public or tribal interest before they commit to an irreversible course of action.

“The history of oil spills provides ample, devastating evidence that there are no reasonable conditions under which these proposed terminal projects should proceed.”

Westway Terminal Company and Imperium Terminal Services had each proposed projects that would ship tens of millions of barrels of crude oil through Grays Harbor each year. Daily trains more than a mile long would bring crude oil from North Dakota or tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada along the Chehalis River and into the port, where it would be stored in huge shoreline tanks. The crude would then be pumped onto oil tankers and barges, increasing at least four-fold the large vessel traffic in and out of the harbor.

“There should be a statewide moratorium on crude-by-rail projects,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Quinault Indian Nation. “A frantic dash to permit is immoral when we’re talking millions of gallons of combustible oil, risks of devastating crude oil spills in rivers and the ocean, harm to traditional fishing economies, and irreplaceable natural resources.”

  • The Board first determined that there was undisputed evidence of a third proposed crude oil terminal in Grays Harbor that must be considered in the permitting decisions. This unexamined third project, proposed by U.S. Development, would add 18 million more barrels of crude oil transit per year to Grays Harbor.
  • The Board also found that Ecology and Hoquiam violated the state environmental review law (SEPA) by waiting until after permitting to analyze the proposed additional rail and vessel transits. “To wait until after the SEPA threshold determination is made, and the [permit] is issued, to obtain information that identifies whether potential impacts from vessel and train increases will be significant and whether mitigation is necessary, does not comply” with the law.” Order at 28.
  • The Board expressed concern at the absence of information supporting the permits. “While the Co-leads may have reached the conclusion that there was not likely to be more than a moderate environmental impact from 520 additional vessel transits per year in Grays Harbor, and 973 unit trains per year to the Port of Grays Harbor, they did not share the basis for that conclusion in any of the SEPA documents.” Order at 31.
  • The Board also stated that the agencies could not simply rely without on other laws to mitigate risks and damages. “[T]he Board encourages the Co-leads to identify potential impacts and then analyze how existing laws will mitigate for those impacts.” Order at 36.
  • Although the Board did not decide other issues raised in the case, the Board went out of its way to identify “troubling questions of the adequacy of the analysis done regarding the potential for individual and cumulative impacts from oil spills, seismic events, greenhouse gas emissions, and impacts to cultural resources.” Order at 33. Of particular concern to the Quinault, the Board discussed the failure the ensure that the projects would not harm historic or cultural resources. The Board also stressed the importance of assessing the types of crude oil that would be at risk of being spilled. “[C]ertainly an impact with the potential to ‘wipe out generation(s) of a livelihood of work they [the shellfish folks or agricultural families, or tribes and local communities] have enjoyed and are skilled to do’ should be explicitly addressed.” Order at 34-35.

The Board’s decision comes as the risks of crude-by-rail oil shipments has come into public focus. In July, a crude-by-rail train exploded and leveled a portion of a small Quebec town, tragically killing almost 50 people. That horrific scene replayed last week, as a similar crude oil train derailed and exploded in Alabama, with fortunately no loss of life. The Grays Harbor projects are the first of almost ten projects slated for Washington’s coast that have been challenged; the enormous Tesoro-Savage proposal on the Columbia River is currently undergoing permitting review.

A copy of the Board’s decision is at