Should a railroad engine with 100 cars of crude oil derail within the city limits of Montesano or fall from a bridge into the waters of Grays Harbor, there’s a plan in place to deal with the crisis.
The rail line just won’t release that plan. They won’t even talk about its contents.
The Vidette joined Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon in requesting access to the oil-spill response plan crafted by Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad. And, for months, the railroad has refused to release it.
Gordon says he’s even more troubled now in the wake of the explosion this past weekend of a driverless train carrying crude oil that left as many as 60 residents of a small town in Quebec, Canada, missing and many dead.
“The disaster was so bad that some people may never be found,” Gordon said. “They were just incinerated. Imagine — they were dancing, some were tourists, and then the explosion happened right in the middle of town.”
The permit process to place crude by rail export facilities at the Port of Grays Harbor is well under way. Imperium wants to expand its biodiesel facility in Hoquiam to include crude oil storage and nearby Westway Terminals has proposed additional bulk liquid facilities to store crude before shipping. The city of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology issued a Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance for both projects, as well as shoreline permit approvals. Environmental groups and the Quinault Indian Nation have appealed the permits for the projects.
U.S. Development Group, which is working on a proposal to add a crude by rail export facility in Hoquiam at Terminal 3, has not yet submitted its permit application. The Port has granted a lease to the company, going by the name Grays Harbor Rail Terminal, to allow for further analysis and obtaining of permits to bring the project to shovel-ready.
A records request with the Port of Grays Harbor turned up no oil spill response plans from the rail line on file with the Port or even much in the way of recent written communication between the Port and rail officials. And, in reviewing documents to ready permits for potential crude by rail export facilities, the railroad even refused to release the plan to the city of Hoquiam and the state Department of Ecology.
Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay says he and Ecology officials were allowed to travel to the offices of Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad in Elma to look at the plan. But, when he asked for copies, the railroad refused.
“They were asked for, they were not provided,” Shay said. “The railroad is not a public agency and like the tribes, are not subject to public records requests.”
County Commissioner Gordon says he simply doesn’t understand. Gordon says he’s sought documents that prove the railroad is prepared in case of a disaster as well as bridge inspection reports that show that area bridges are in good working order. Neither have been provided. However, the railroad did send officials to meet with him.
“I really don’t understand what the railroad is hiding here,” Gordon said. “They have a chance to do real good here, to squash real concerns of the public and they’ve refused to cooperate.”
Gordon said he wanted to meet in a public session with the railroad for the public could attend. The railroad refused and would only meet individually with each county commissioner to avoid open public meeting act provisions triggering a mandated public meeting. Commissioners Wes Cormier and Herb Welch also met individually with rail officials last month on the same day.
No documents — bridge inspection reports or safety plans — are required to be on file with the state Department of Transportation’s rail division, according to a spokesman for the state agency.
However, railroad spokesman Patrick Kerr with Genesee & Wyoming, which bought Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad late last year, says that the response plan is on file with the Federal Railroad Administration. But even with a Freedom of Information Act request, Kerr says, the document wouldn’t be released because of national security issues.
Kerr says the oil spill response plan consists of details for “security and handling of hazardous materials.”
“This confidential document is not made public for security reasons; however, as part of the State Environmental Protection Act process for review of development plans at the port, the railroad allowed state ecology personnel to review the plan, and they were satisfied with it,” Kerr said.
City Administrator Shay says he never signed any non-disclosure agreements preventing him from talking about the railroad’s plans. He says the plan consists of about 20 pages.
“It covered their exact procedures if there was a spill, who gets called, how they would report the spill to Ecology, the contratcors they have on board, the types of equipment they would have to respond to a spill,” Shay said. “It almost felt like a city emergency response plan, like how we would respond to a sewage break. They didn’t have specifics on what they would do if a spill were to happen at specific points along the raildorad, it just talked in generics.”
Shay said he felt it was a comprehensive document.
“And now that the railroad is owned by Genesee & Wyoming, it sounds like they may even have more of an extensive rail response plan in general throughout their system,” Shay said.
Shay said he feels comfortable that if an oil spill or explosion were to happen along the rail line, that the plan is good enough to allow an adequate response.
“There’s two big firms that do major disaster spill response and they have contracts with those companies that can mobilize anywhere for any event,” Shay said. “I do think that everyone is aware of what happened in Canada and we hope we can all learn lessons to apply here for what happened over there.”
Grays Harbor Deputy Emergency Manager Chuck Wallace, who specializes in disaster preparedness and tabletop exercises, says he’s never seen the railroad’s emergency plan. They’ve never provided it to him.
“Even though I haven’t seen it, they are pretty resilient with how they have to respond to things,” Wallace said.
Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard says he’s nervous about potential derailment issues, especially in front of the Olympic Gateway Mall and Walmart area in east Aberdeen, where his fire trucks and ambulances can’t get access if a train is there. The city of Aberdeen is working with the railroad and the Port on a $600,000 study to look at options in that area that could potentially lift the track up so access could be done underneath the tracks.
Elma Mayor Dave Osgood says he’s worried about derailment issues, too, noting thousands of people in his city and in unincorporated Elma would be cut off from fire or medical assistance if a derailment would happen in the middle of his town. He’s been complaining about the issue for more than a year, but says no one is paying much attention to the issue in his city.
The Port of Grays Harbor conducted a crude by rail projects update during their commissioner meeting Tuesday morning, with Don Seil, the general manager for Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad, as the featured guest.
None of the commissioners asked questions about the explosion in Canada and Seil didn’t mention it at all during his 24-minute power point presentation. Seil also didn’t address any issues dealing with the railroad’s plan for dealing with emergencies.
Instead, the bulk of Seil’s presentation focused on the safety aspects of the railroad. Seil noted that that the railroad recently provided training opportunities for local first responders.
“Our core purpose is to be the safest and most respected rail service provider in the world,” Seil told the Port commissioners.
Seil said the focus with Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad is a “commitment to safety and customer service,” to “support local industrial development, creating new customers and area job growth” and to “invest in Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad infrastructure to ensure superior safety and customer service and support future growth.”
Seil said that Puget Sound and Pacific has had no derailments in two years. The last one was in January of 2010, when five cars jumped the tracks from a 38-car freight train. There were no injuries, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
During a meeting with The Vidette Tuesday afternoon, Jerry Vest, the vice president of government and industry affairs for Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, also lauded the railroad’s safety record. But Vest said that the disaster response plan wasn’t being made public to keep it out of “nefarious” hands, who may use it to circumvent the railroad’s efforts.
“The tragedy in Quebec is very saddening,” Vest said. “I know it is. It is to everyone with G&W. That company was not part of our companies. We’re not affiliated with it. We need to have a full investigation of what happened there. And that’s what we need. My first reaction was true sadness. It really is. My second reaction is, how did this happen? Because it shouldn’t have happened. It simply shouldn’t have happened and until a thorough investigation is done, all the speculation doesn’t help.”