State sees oil train risks as acceptable
Over the next several months, Governor Inslee is inviting the public to focus their attention on this Department of Ecology report leading to support for legislative proposals by March 1, 2015.
The question is whether the public should accept his invitation to help enable the transportation of this un-conventional Bakken and tar sands crude and to support his legislative initiatives or stay focused on local organizing, local jurisdictions, like Ports and City Councils, and statewide movement building.
I’ve come to believe that the only force capable of saving our land, labor and commonly held resources is an alliance of sovereign tribes, organized labor, farmer unions, and community based resistance groups working in concert with their local governmental jurisdictions.
The first draft appeared October 1 and the first comment hearings took place October 28 in Spokane and October 30 in Olympia. There will be more in the future.
Probably the first thing you notice about the report is what’s not there. There no mention of the significant statewide municipal, community, farm, union and tribal opposition to his proposed oil terminals, expanding oil refineries, explosive oil trains and the misuse of our public ports. You would think there would at least be a nod to the cities like Vancouver who passed a resolution opposing the oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver and calling on the Port of Vancouver to rescind its lease with Tesoro/Savage for a massive marine crude export terminal.
But then you notice who is writing the report. The Department of Ecology is the same state agency who on Inslee’s watch issued declarations of non-significance for two of the three proposed oil terminals at Grays Harbor. Such declarations would have meant a fast track to construction. However, an alliance of community groups and the Quinault nation got those declarations overturned and now massive Environmental Impact Study (EIS) studies are in progress for all three terminals.
Having this biased department leading the study is bad enough, but then they list a BNSF “Senior Citizens Club”, MainLine Management, Inc. as one of the authors of the draft report. This firm is the only rail consultant of the five firms listed as authors of the report. All three principals and all three associates in MainLine had long corporate careers with BNSF. BNSF is the dominant Class I railroad in this state and the main beneficiary of all the crude by trail traffic the Governor is facilitating.
MainLine, however, was apparently hired by Environmental Research Consulting (ERC) of Cortland Manor, NY. This firm, which has worked for the American Petroleum Institute and done previous studies for Ecology, has the sole contract with Ecology for this study. Of the $300,000 allocated by the Legislature for this study, ERC gets $250,000 for a one year contract ending in June 2015.
Then you need to consider the actions of Inslee’s Administration itself, not its rhetoric, but what it actually does. His policy. His Department of Transportation, State UTC, Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board and Community Economic Development Board all implement programs with BNSF as one of its main beneficiaries and to the detriment of expanded and current passenger service.
So what’s the purpose of Inslee’s Study? Mis-direction. It defines the problem as a federal issue and calls upon the US Coast Guard and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to do something. The USCG actually regulates marine traffic, but the FRA is an industry dominated entity with the current capability of inspecting less than 1% of rail activity and a policy of imploring railroads rather than regulating them. Calling upon the FRA to regulate rail would be like calling upon BNSF’s owner Warren Buffett to stop making money. It’s not what they do.
Worse, the study’s authors wait until the very end of the report (p. 82) to state that the very things that the public has been asking about are not considered by this study: “… the potential ways in which the crude by rail system and the increase in port activities with new facilities affects tribal treaty rights, the environment and the regional economy” are “ancillary”and not the “direct topic” of the study.
Okay, if the study does not address how crude by rail affects tribal rights, the environment and the regional economy, what does it attempt to tell us? The study’s authors are trying to tell us all this risk is normal so there is no particular reason to get upset…. it’s just some new risks. They do this with the repeated phrase “for decades.”
“Tribal risks from spills currently exist in all areas of the state and have for decades.” (36) “The environmental risks from spills already existed in all areas of the state for decades.” (38) “While diluted bitumen has been transported into Washington for decades,” (38) “The socio-economic risks from oil spills has already existed in all areas of the state for decades.” (40)
But, of course, the scale of extraction of these “non-conventional” crudes has NOT been happening for decades nor have we experienced the consequent level of threat to our communities, our natural and treaty resources and our economic infrastructures.
Inslee’s study assumes all this extraction and transportation can be mitigated and focuses solely on risk. In focusing solely on risk, the authors are admitting they have no idea about, understanding of, or control over what they are facilitating. They refuse to exercise caution even in the face of existing catastrophic consequences. The study’s authors need to visit the still cordoned off downtown Lac Megantic or watch the film, Petropolis, showing the devastation from the Alberta tar sands where two of the three largest dams by volume in the world hold back all the unmitigated rot. And this study wants to reward all this by transporting it through our state?
Is there any value to this draft? Yes, it indirectly supports the statewide demand for an immediate moratorium on Crude by Rail. The study lists in excruciating detail how totally exposed everyone in this state is to the explosive danger of the existing crude by rail traffic. The Washington State Council of Fire Fighters is right. There needs to be an immediate halt to this oil train traffic.
From the report:
“Nearly three million Washington state residents live in 93 cities and towns on or near crude by rail trains routes” (or, as we would say, are in the “blast zone.”) (30)
“Current tank car placarding standards for the transportation of hazardous materials are insufficient in providing First Responders timely and important information. “ (51)
“None of the current crude by rail are subject to requirements for comprehensive response plans.”
“Railroad spills are not currently covered by state approved oil spill contingency plans (67)
“Washington has not established financial responsibility levels for facilities which include both fixed and mobile facilities and rail as a facility. (68)
“The current state regulatory definition of oil may not include certain heavy oils, diluted bitumen, synthetic crudes, and other crude oils produced in Canada that are transported in Washington. (68)
“Currently, the state does not have means to gather information on the type or volume of oil being shipped through Washington.” (69)
62% of the state’s 278 fire districts “believe that their departments are not sufficiently trained or do not have the resources to respond to a train derailment accompanied by fire.” (70)
An overwhelming majority of first responders surveyed “are not aware of the response strategies or resources in place by railroads should an incident take place.” (71)
There is “not a comprehensive inventory of the equipment location that would aid in locating and sharing equipment when it is needed.” (72)
“Training for first responders in Washington State is currently insufficient and is not uniformly coordinated, and what training is currently available is at risk of reduction due to reduced federal grants. (72)
A Geographic Response Plans for oil spills to water “have not been developed for most of the rail corridors through which crude by rail trains are transiting….” (73)
How can this state level study process be used? There seems to be two options.
The study can be an opportunity to create a love fest for the “beleaguered green governor” who pleads that he has no authority to regulate rail and wants communities throughout the state to back a doomed legislative agenda to expand agency study budgets while oil terminals get approved, oil refineries get expanded, and our rail system is turned into a permanent carbon corridor for the export of tar sands and Bakken crude.
Or, the study can be a reminder that the strength of community resistance was what produced this attempt at mis-direction and the task remains to continue building opposition to state sponsored oil terminals, expanding refineries and a state bureaucracy collaborating with BNSF’s mission to export through our public ports global pollution from the broken earth of Northern Alberta and North Dakota.
I had a conversation with a person several months ago who described the small Lewis county rail towns of Vader, Winlock and Napavine as “sacrifice zones.” More recently I drove the BNSF track in Eastern Washington. I now think the farm towns of Cheney, Sprague, Ritzville, Lind, Hatton, Connell and Mesa are also “sacrifice zones.” Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that our entire state is being made a sacrifice zone to the extractive madness of the big oil and the state government is currently facilitating its creation.
Inslee’s study is an attempt to cap the oppositional movement and trade the state’s future for a false climate agenda based on mitigating disaster at the margins. It won’t work.
Dan Leahy is a Westside resident and proud member of the Decatur Raiders.