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Grays Harbor residents alarmed by derailments

Aberdeen woman points out why her city council needs to stand against oil trains
Gail Morehouse
As a community member engaged in conversations and grassroots efforts to improve quality of life in our little city on the Harbor, my eyes were opened to an issue far greater than downtown cosmetics and socio-economic status quos. On April 29, 2014, I was confronted by a derailed train 2-1/2 blocks from my home. A second derailment blocked Walmart and a third happened near Central Park—all within a 16-day period. Our local Facebook pages exploded with lively discussions.

Opinions vs facts and complacency
I attended the Aberdeen City Council Meeting May 14 to listen in on the conversation regarding rail transport of crude oil to the Port of Grays Harbor. Harborites from Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Montesano and Elma presented various documents to support their pleas for mercy. In short, our residents are terrified. A derailment involving crude oil or the mismanagement of holding tanks and transport hoses are more than we can conceive. A foam-yielding fire truck donated to the City of Hoquiam could not extinguish even one spilled oil car fire by itself. Each city should have 4-5 on hand. The Grays Harbor Port Commission was accused of political immorality and injustice based on their power-play decision to force such a detrimental decision upon intercity residents. Derailments were blamed solely on the railroads, yet Aberdeen’s basic infrastructure is ill-prepared for such a venture.

DeCourcey (Kathi) Hoder, City Council President, spoke candidly and two others concurred. Hoder pointed out that eminent dangers far out-weighed local job prospects as was the case with the Pontoon Project. Current industries would halt if the Chehalis River Bridge was destroyed. The destruction or blocking of Highway 12 E/W would put the harbor on lockdown from Aberdeen to Ocean Shores which we experienced during the storm of December 3, 2007.

Community demands for action were made on Mayor Simpson who listened anxiously. Residents declared that City Council was responsible to “take a stance, any stance” and at least draft a letter similar to one submitted to the Environmental Impact Study by the Mayor of Montesano. Citizen voices on the harbor are seemingly disproportionately marginalized.

Federal law regulates the railroads. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) emergency order requires carriers to report to a WA state agency despite claims that local fire departments can be directly notified as to what chemicals are on which rails and their potential for explosion before entering a municipality. Simpson was urged to address the Environmental Impact Study before the May 27 deadline. Simpson responded, “Okay,” saying he would consider writing a letter He was eager to adjourn. I wondered where all the strong voices were that night who gallantly posted information and claims in our lively on-line discussions.

Meanwhile, Grays Harbor County Commissioners voted against submitting a lengthy resolution regarding crude by rail citing that specifics were not consistent with county responsibilities. A brief letter drafted by County Commissioner Wes Cormier was submitted instead. Grays Harbor County Commissioners are not scheduled to meet again until after the May 27 scoping period deadline for the Environmental Impact Study.

My personal opinion
I say “NO!” to crude oil by rail to the Port of Grays Harbor over the shifting sands upon which Aberdeen sits. I fault the railroad for neglecting the tracks and the FRA for not enforcing better inspections and repairs. I hold the Grays Harbor Port Commission accountable for their self-serving attitudes – for countering public opinion regarding decisions that affect public safety by purporting an influx of local jobs which is highly unlikely. The prospect of money overshadows any commitment to collaborative discussion with city municipalities or constituents. The damage will be done by the time we vote them out.

Personally, the greatest threat I see to rail security here is the ground. Aberdeen’s foundation is simply a mud bay covered with back-fill. It moves daily. Houses and businesses shake regularly with every passing semi-truck. River dredging invites river-bed erosion. Old buildings are haunted by wavy floors and houses are seen tipping to one side due to movement below well-constructed foundations. This is why time and money was invested to install pontoons beneath the State Building reconstruction in Aberdeen a few years ago. One side of the street in front of my house has dropped 2-3 inches in the past 4 years cracking the pavement full circle with adjacent puzzle-pieces hang on for dear life. I dread the demise of my car to a sinkhole scenario, but expect it would simply drop 12 – 15 inches and float. A neighbor informs me that the street patch turned speed bump in front of my house was there when he moved in 19 years ago. Rainwater bypasses the drain to pool in my yard, forcing me to wade through the pond from my front steps to the other side of the street. Could it be that our railroad tracks are undermined in the same way?

Whenever a business with more power than the people (or local government in this case) comes to town, the people lose. Big businesses promise whatever necessary to get contracts. How many cities were promised improved rail infrastructure and maintenance only to blow up? How much of our downtown area are we going to sacrifice in this game of Russian roulette? How many lives? Bearing in mind the skilled, technical knowledge necessary to man the trains and oil, how many Harborites will have their employment hopes dashed again like they were with the pontoon project? We need our neighbors who understand the dangers involved and the high price of ignoring the peoples’ voices to stand in solidarity with us.

Gail Morehouse is a Grays Harbor based Evergreen student. Passionate about integrative social processes for marginalized populations and the welfare of community at-large, Gail is Administrative Director of “Grays Harbor Houses of Hope”, and Executive Board Member for “Grays Harbor Transitional Services” 501c3.

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