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Editorial: Another crude oil derailment, a new ‘safety alert’ brings renewed focus on oil trains

Confirming the suspicions of just about everybody who has seen the fiery explosions on TV following the derailments of trains carrying crude oil, the U.S. Department of Transportation is now issuing a “safety alert” for the general public and first responders to be aware that trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota is “more flammable.”

This is the same kind of crude oil that has been proposed to move through the rails splitting in half the cities of Elma, Montesano and Aberdeen on its way to potential crude oil export facilities at the Port of Grays Harbor.

And the announcement comes just days after yet another derailment happened. This time the fiery explosions, shooting hundreds of feet into the air, was caught on video and placed on You Tube. Here’s the link or just go to The Vidette’s Facebook page, where we’ve posted it. The train was carrying 3.5 million gallons of crude oil.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration started taking another look at crude oil from the Bakken region following the explosion in the middle of a small town in Quebec, killing dozens and incinerating a few people, whose bodies were never found. Soon after, explosions happened following derailments in Alabama and North Dakota. No one died in those explosions, but there was plenty of panic and evacuations.

On Dec. 30, the Associated Press reported that a mile-long train carrying crude oil derailed just a mile before it would have cut through the heart of a small North Dakota town, shaking residents with a series of explosions that sent flame and black smoke skyward. No one was hurt, but officials were evacuating as many as 300 people as a precaution.

“I rolled down the window, and you could literally keep your hands warm,” a man who lived half a mile away said.

“It could have been us,” Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp wrote in a press release. “This is one of the very real dangers the Quinault Nation and others have been consistently warning people about. Industry officials, port officials and others who have been pushing for the increased oil traffic into Grays Harbor County have advocated increased traffic on the basis of benefits to employment and the economy. The folly of that argument becomes crystal clear in the wake of these accidents.”

The safety alert was issued three days later, stating, “The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is issuing this safety alert to notify the general public, emergency responders and shippers and carriers that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

This is kind of like saying that fire is hot. But at least there’s someone with some kind of authority is making it official, acknowledging the information out there that environmental groups have been saying for quite a while.

The safety alert follows one issued in November requiring that rail operators update their “safety and security plans required by the Federal hazardous materials regulations, including the required risk assessments, to address the safety and security issues.”

The latest alert from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “stresses to offerors the importance of appropriate classification and packing group (PG) assignment of crude oil shipments, whether the shipment is in a cargo tank, rail tank car or other mode of transportation. Emergency responders should remember that light sweet crude oil, such as that coming from the Bakken region, is typically assigned a packing group I or II. The PGs mean that the material’s flashpoint is below 73 degrees Fahrenheit and, for packing group I materials, the boiling point is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident.”

The federal agency states that they are in the midst of testing Bakken oil so the agency can provide some specific guidance.

“These tests measure some of the inherent chemical properties of the crude oil collected,” the safety alert states. “Nonetheless, the agencies have found it necessary to expand the scope of their testing to measure other factors that would affect the proper characterization and classification of the materials.”

When the Quebec accident happened over the summer, Port of Grays Harbor officials and those with Puget Sound & Pacific Rail immediately pointed to the fact that the accident happened when the train rolled down a hill.

Because of that, I just want to note that in the last three derailments and resulting explosions, the land appeared to have been flat. In the explosion that happened in Alabama, the rail line was operated by Genesee & Wyoming, the same outfit that owns Puget Sound & Pacific Rail.

I’m still waiting to see the specifics on how the rail line handled that emergency because it may be the only sign we have for how they will handle a derailment and explosion here on the Harbor should that ever happen and if the export facilities move forward.

Genesee & Wyoming have refused to release their emergency plans, citing National Security. There have been mayors asking for these plans, a county commissioner asking for it, first responders asking for it. Some officials from Hoquiam and Ecology saw the plans, but the rail line refused to make copies for them. About the only folks, to my knowledge, who haven’t asked for it are Port officials — at least no one at the Port asked for it in writing in recent public records releases to me.

So, here’s my idea for th e Port, if these export facilities move forward, before signing any leases, mandate that the mystery emergency plans be on file with your office and make it available like any other public record. Don’t let a corporation dictate the terms of the lease.

Port officials recently chose to be the middle man in the purchase of assets at the Satsop Business Park. Be the middle man here in the safety and transparency of the entire county. Some things are more important than money and the public deserves to know what these plans are — especially in the wake of yet another explosion and derailment and a safety alert from the federal government. Whatever your opinion is on whether these facilities should be on the Harbor or not, tell your Port commissioners that transparency is more important than money. We may not be able to tell a corporation what to do, but our elected officials can if they want to use our public assets.

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at