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Elma preps for coming oil trains

David Blackette | For The Vidette
David Blackette | For The Vidette
David Blackette | For The Vidette
David Blackette | For The Vidette

ELMA — Sometimes, when the trains go through Elma, entire portions of the town are blocked for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. It used to be three times worse. Then, city officials in Elma got loud, took their complaints to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, even threatened a lawsuit against the railroad.

In turn, railroad owner Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad decided to refrain from doing its train separations in the middle of town and built some new tracks out near the Oakville area to decrease the volume of trains through Elma.

Now, city officials in Elma are worried that if train traffic increases due to the potential export of crude oil at the Port of Grays Harbor that the town will become split again — for even longer periods of time. Mayor Dave Osgood said he saw the television accounts of the explosion of a train carrying oil in Quebec last summer and wonders if that could be Elma one day.

Three proposals are moving through the permitting process at the Port of Grays Harbor, who are all looking to export crude oil. A proposal by Westway Terminals could export 749.9 million gallons of crude per year. A proposal by Imperium Renewables could export 1.26 billion gallons of crude per year and a proposal made just last week by U.S. Development could export more than 689.85 million gallons of crude per year. Those numbers are based on the total numbers of trains arriving at the facilities coupled with the number of barges that leave and the maximum storage facilities being called for at the sites.

Osgood says he’s not opposed to the concept of exporting oil from the Port. He’s not leaped on the bandwagon of environmentalists who oppose drilling for oil at all costs.

“I’m just worried about my city,” he says.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations warning that the ever-increasing amount of crude oil shipment by rail could lead to “major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences.” Visible derailments have received a lot of attention over the past few months and crude oil shipments by rail have increased by more than 400 percent since 2005. The federal government has issued requirements for better containers for the crude oil to travel inside, but it is taking time for the companies to build those containers at an estimate of $1 bllion by one recent industry estimate.

“The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn’t exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a press release this past January. “While this energy boom is good for business, the people and the environment along rail corridors must be protected from harm. If unit trains of flammable liquids are going to be part of our nation’s energy future, we need to make sure the hazardous materials classification is accurate, the route is well planned, and the tank cars are as robust as possible.”

WALKWAY

Osgood’s short-term idea is to have the railroad or the Port fund a walkway that would go up and over the railroad. That way, in case the train is stalled or, worse, there’s a derailment, he’ll be able to have first responders go over the railroad to get to the other side.

The goal for the city would be to station one of its fire trucks on the other side of the railroad and construct some kind of facility just to park the truck. He’s willing to just have it be a simple modular parking structure — just to keep the fire truck safe and out of the elements. There’s a place near the 10th Street ballpark that would be perfect, Osgood said.

Otherwise, if there’s a fire or some other kind of disaster, Osgood says, there’s no way to get fire protection to the other side of the tracks. And that’s only talking about situations the city of Elma’s volunteer firefighter team can respond to.

In cases of heart attacks and medical emergencies, the city relies on Fire District 5 for assistance — and ambulances would still be stuck on the other side of the tracks.

“That’s my real worry,” Elma Councilman David Blackett says. “Every minute counts in a medical emergency. What if the train is in the way?”

Last summer, the Elma City Council unanimously authorized Osgood to write a letter to the Port, urging concern and caution in approving future leases with potential oil export facilities.

Osgood said he never did write that letter, mainly because he didn’t want to be seen as too heavy handed and he thought the situation could be handled by meeting with Port Commissioner Chuck Caldwell and staff at the Port.

Caldwell has said constructing a walkway like the city of Elma has proposed really isn’t the responsibility of the Port. He said that should be an issue the city takes up with the railroad.

However, there’s unanimous consent among the Elma City Council members and the mayor that if the Port can build a viewing tower for the city of Westport, why can’t it build a walkway for the city of Elma? And to get unanimous consent among the Elma City Council really is quite a feat since at least one or two members of the council consistently disagree with the rest.

“I think this has been a concern with all of us for quite some time,” Councilwoman Debbie Thurman said.

In the summer of 2011, in celebration of the Port’s centennial and to address stability and erosion issues, the Port commissioners authorized the construction of a new concrete tower looking out over the top of the jetty rocks with a lighthouse design to it to better withstand the weather. The construction project had a $628,000 price tag, a significant increase over the initial replacement estimates of about $300,000, according to media reports at the time.

And there-in lies the rub, Blackett points out, if the Port can spend nearly two-thirds of a million dollars on a tourism-friendly piece of equipment, why can’t it spend a fraction of that cost on a safety project?

Last fall, The Vidette informed council members and Osgood that a rail-crossing walkway already exists at the Port of Grays Harbor. Councilmen Blackett and Tom Boling along with Mayor Osgood and a couple of the city’s first responders took a special trip to Port properties to investigate what was there. They discovered two metal walkways over railroad tracks on the Imperium Renewables property and convinced Port security and staff to let them check it out. The walkways were put in to help Port staff and Imperium staff get from one side of the property to the other when it’s blocked by rail cars.

“It’s exactly what we need,” Boling said. “Exactly.”

Blackett took pictures — just to prove the equipment existed. They’re still on his cell phone today, where he’s ready to whip them out and show them to anyone asking about it.

“We had been talking about these walkways for a year or more and nobody had told us they were right there,” Blackett said.

RAIL TRAFFIC

Elma city officials never really went vocal with complaints about the railroad or the Port until 2009, when Port marine traffic started escalating and the rail line that splits the city in two began seeing more and more trains. It’s this teamwork of a deep water port and a rail line that had led to the rapid success of the Port and its best years ever.

Osgood convinced the mayors across the Harbor that the problem needed to be addressed. Osgood regularly attends meetings with the other mayors. In turn, all of the mayors signed on to a letter in January of 2010 to the rail line demanding some kind of action. Osgood said there were too many citizen complaints that they were having to wait an hour or longer to get home.

As a direct result, the rail line came back and decided the best course of action would be to close several of the rail crossings through town.

The proposal was met with stiff resistance by the council and the public because, instead of dealing with the rail traffic problem, the rail line wanted to keep changing out its rail cars in the middle of town — and force the public to go around them.

Complaints were filed with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. The rail line sent “nasty letters” to the city, Blackett said.

At issue was a belief by the rail line that the railroad was there first in some fashion.

But, as luck would have it, the city has kept all of its records dating back to its very foundation. Public Works Director Jim Starks says he was able to go through the old, yellowed books and find the actual approved resolution dating back to the 1800s granting the railroad rights to access the city easements. But it was verifiable proof that the city was there first — before the railroad ever built its line. Had it gone the other way, the railroad might have been able to close most of the crossings throughout the city, Blackett says.

IMPROVEMENTS

In June of 2012, Puget Sound & Pacific celebrated the installation of a new “sideline” rail between the Elma and Oakville areas along Highway 12 toward Chehalis. The 8,300-feet of new tracks allow the railroad to move two trains between the area, one going westbound and the other eastbound.

“Our trains move locally produced lumber, biodiesel, pulp and other products while bringing thousands of autos and tons of grain to the port each day,” railroad spokesman Patrick Kerr said in a press release at the time.

As a result of the sideline, the rail traffic issue in Elma has diminished. Puget Sound & Pacific is also breaking its rail cars far less in the middle of town, Osgood said.

But there’s a real worry among city officials that more rail traffic could lead to an escalation of the rail traffic issue. The Port of Grays Harbor’s information page on the three proposed crude oil export facilities notes that nine to 12 extra trains would be moving through the Harbor each week, if all three facilities operate at capacity.

Advocates who have opposed the crude oil export facilities say those numbers are off and need to be updated on the Port’s website.

The new permit for Imperium Renewables notes it would bring in up to 730 additional trains a year, both loaded and empty. That breaks down to 13.5 trains per week. Westway Terminals’ new permit states it would bring in up to 458 trains per year, both loaded and empty, or about 8.5 trains per week. That’s a combined 22 additional trains a week — up by 10 trains compared to the Port’s information page.

U.S. Development has also now officially proposed a terminal to export crude oil, proposing to bring one train every other day, both loaded and unloaded.

Westway would have trains with 60 cars. Imperium and U.S. Development would both have 120-car trains. An anaylsis by opponent group Citizens for a Clean Harbor shows that the extra trains coming in at 5 mph through towns would lead to 76.5 minutes of blockage per day or nearly nine hours of blockage per week.

WHAT NEXT?

Imperium’s proposed permit notes that 6,100 feet of track would be installed in multiple new rail spurs, however, the locations weren’t mentioned. Westway’s proposed permit doesn’t mention the rail spurs. The city of Hoquiam is still processing U.S. Development’s permit.

The previous attempt at permits included a one-page “Rail Transportation Impact Analysis” that stated a new 8,200-foot siding between Aberdeen and Elma to help reduce rail traffic in East County, 1,800 feet of new track in Hoquiam, rehabilitation of 1,800 feet of existing siding at the Port of Grays Harbor and construction of 1,500 feet of rail extension at Blakeslee Junction at Centralia “to enhance interchange capacity for unit trains.” The document also notes that increasing freight rail movement above seven trains a week would mean even more siding capacity in the Elma and Centralia areas.

No other details were required in that permit, which was ultimately rejected when opponents appealed it to the state Shorelines Hearings Board and sent back to the city for a do over. Westway and Imperium have since decided to go through a voluntary Environmental Impact Statement.

A scoping process to figure out what should be in that environmental impact statement is already underway with public comment accepted through May 27.

The notice issued by the city of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology on the project state that among the issues to be looked at is rail safety and rail traffic, “including a rail transportation impact analysis for the rail line from Centralia to Grays Harbor.”

That compares to the previous analysis, which barely touched on the East County rail impacts the project could bring.

Osgood said last summer he was disturbed when the environmental process was going on and yet no one had even sent the city a letter inquiring for an opinion. However, Imperium hired a consultant over the fall, who touched base with the mayor and Public Works Director Starks to get their input in anticipation that the company may need to do a bigger environmental assessment.

Osgood said he’s been happier with the more inclusive process this time around.

Last week, however, opponents of the crude oil export facilities urged the council to take more of a vocal stand, not just on the trains, but on the entire issue.

Ron Figlar-Barnes, who unsuccessfully ran for port commissioner, teamed together with his son Jarred and County Commissioner candidate Al Smith in making the request.

Blackett provided an abridged version of what the city had done to date, but Figlar-Barnes left a letter for the city to look at and encouraged them to sign it and send it on to the Port, Hoquiam and Ecology officials.

In Montesano, there’s also been talk of the city figuring out a position to take on the crude oil export projects. Recent council meetings have had Council members Marisa Salzer, Ken Walkington and Pat Herrington all talking about the city settling on at least some kind of perspective on the matter.

Last week, former county commissioner Dan Wood, who lives in Montesano, also urged the Montesano City Council to take the issue seriously.

Wood said he compared the blast radius of last summer’s disaster in Quebec “and it could be quite catastrophic, depending on where the explosion happens, it could go a half-mile out and reach the junior and senior high in Montesano as well as Beacon Elementary, the Satsop School in the Brady area or Elma Elementary.”

Bruce Daniels says he makes the drive from Aberdeen to Elma all the time for his job and runs into a train blocking his way quite a bit.

He has quite a different perspective, choosing to snap a photo when he’s waiting to remind himself that waiting for a train means someone else is working.

“This train was 88 cars long and took less than 10 minutes to pass moving very slowly too,” Daniels said. “I would never cuss those trains. They are the reason families have a roof over their heads and full bellies.”

The League of Women Voters is hosting a “citizen-powered town hall meeting” to discuss the pros and cons of bringing export facilities to ship crude oil at the Port of Grays Harbor.

The meeting is slated for 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 23 at the Elma Grange — a change in venue from previously announced. The grange is located at 401 W Waldrip St. in Elma. The panel discussion features speakers representing the pros and cons of the concept and is mirrored after a similar event that happened last fall in Ocean Shores. Vidette Editor Steven Friederich will moderate the discussion.

The event is sponsored by the League of Women Voters, The Vidette, North Beach Community TV and Eagles TV of Elma.