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Editorial: What’s next for opponents challenging crude oil exports?

Environmental groups are threatening to sue the U.S. Department of Transportation unless the federal agency issues an emergency order prohibiting the use of hazardous rail cars carrying crude oil across the country. These cars known as DOT 111s were found in every major derailment and fiery explosion of Bakken crude oil from the past year, including the incident in Quebec that killed so many people and a big explosion in Alabama on a rail line owned by Genesee & Wyoming, the parent company of our local railroad.

Although the federal agency has officially recommended that railroads and their carriers stop using the cars, largely found to be inefficient in rail disasters during the past year, the cars are still in use. Rail companies such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad say they have no choice but to continue using them because companies constructing new, updated cars can’t make them fast enough. In fact, BNSF has ordered 5,000 of the new cars just for itself — an unusual move since rail companies usually don’t own their own rail cars. Elma-based Puget Sound & Pacific, for instance, doesn’t own any of its own cars. All eyes on the Harbor are on this process since there’s a real possibility that these oil trains could be rolling through here soon to three proposed export terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor.

Environmental groups Sierra Club and Forest Ethics say enough time has passed and the federal agency should no longer be allowed to use DOT 111s to carry Bakken crude oil, in particular. The 60-day notice was filed last week as a precursor to a potential lawsuit to force the federal government to take action.

“It is beyond doubt that the legacy DOT-111 tank cars create an imminent hazard warranting emergency restrictions, as they puncture at alarming rates, indeed in some accidents more than half the impacted cars punctured and spilled their contents,” the notice from the environmental groups state. “These tank cars are simply too prone to spilling oil in accidents to be used to ship flammable crude oil. Indeed, in Canada, the use of some DOT-111 tank cars to ship crude oil has already been banned and a surcharge has been imposed on all other DOT-111 crude oil shipments. These actions create incentives to add the DOT-111s previously in service in Canada to the U.S. fleet, exacerbating the risk of oil spills and disasters in the United States.”

The petition states that in 2012, more than 1.1 million gallons of crude oil spilled in the United States — more in one year than the total amount spilled from 1975 to 2012.

“More than 4,000 people were evacuated from their homes due to crude-by-rail train explosions in 2013, dwarfing the total number evacuated due to pipeline and rail accidents from 2002 to 2012,” the petition states.

On July 7, 2013, 47 people, including children as young as 4 years old, were incinerated at Lac Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, when a crude oil trail exploded in their city. Damage to a four-block radius — still being cleaned up — could cost up to $1 billion to repair. The rail line only had $25 million liability insurance and filed for bankruptcy.

Many more derailments have happened during the past year. One of the major derailments that I’ve had my eye on happened in November of last year in Alabama. Namely, I’ve been interested in this particular derailment because Genesee & Wyoming owns the rail line where the derailment and resulting explosion happened. This is the same company that owns Puget Sound & Pacific Rail, which would be responssible for cleanup efforts here should the same thing happen.

The company has continued to decline to release its emergency response plans to either the public or first responders. To the company’s credit, however, they have conducted emergency training for first responders; once last year in Aberdeen and company vice president Jerry Vest says another exercise is slated for this year. In November, media reports indicated an 88-car train run by Genesee & Wyoming and carrying Bakken crude oil derailed with 20 cars off the track and 11 exploding. A Federal Railroad Administration report I reviewed found that the southbound train actually derailed 26 cars containing crude oil. Another four cars were damaged. Of those, 25 cars leaked crude oil (some exploding).

Vest says he never visited the site, but did see photos.

These cars that exploded were DOT-111 cars — exactly the kind that leveled the city in Quebec. Media reports at the time of the accident note that the resulting oil spill into adjacent marsh land would have been much worse had a nearby beaver dam not already slowed the flow of water.

Genesee Chief Executive John Hellmann told Reuters that the company had invested $25 million on that stretch of the Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway before the derailment happened, $15 million of which was focused on track work. “There was no concern about the state of the track,” Hellmann said.

So, what happened? How did the derailment occur? We still don’t know.

The Federal Railroad Administration report notes that as of March 26 — five months after the derailment — Genesee & Wyoming hadn’t turned over the necessary “hazmat information,” although the railroad anticipated doing it by the end of April. It’s July now and the report was never updated.

“The investigation found no evidence that indicates any train handling, human factors or mechanical issues caused derailment,” the report states. “In light of the significant destruction at the derailment site, no outside debris or formal rail defects were found that could be definitely linked to the cause of the derailment. As a consequence, a derailment cause cannot be assigned.”

There were no injuries, but the damage caused by the accident exceeded $2 million, according to the Federal Railroad Administration report.

Even today, some eight months after the fiery derailment, oil is still leaking out of the dirt, according to Vest.

“We complied with all directives of federal and state agencies in the clean-up and site remediation,” Vest said. “Our employees and contractor are monitoring the site. The fill soil is still weeping crude oil, and we are maintaining booms and other catch systems to capture the oil. We will remain at the site until the effort is done.”

One important difference between the way crude oil trains were moving in Alabama and the way they’re moving in our region is through the use of high railing cars — trucks used for inspecting the tracks. Genesee & Wyoming wasn’t using those inspection cars in front of their crude oil transports in Alabama, Vest says. However, regional president Joel Haka says it’s always been standard to use the high rail cars in the Pacific Northwest — and Haka says they’ve never had a derailment of crude oil as a result. Haka says if crude oil is shipped out of the Harbor, he’ll use these special inspection cars to get the crude oil to the Port of Grays Harbor. These high rail cars have also now become standard across Genesee & Wyoming, Vest says, largely because of Haka’s success.

Continuing to watch what happens in Alabama is important for those of us on the Harbor, because it’s our only sign, since the railroad won’t release its emergency plans, that they actually will deal with an oil spill if it ever happens on the Harbor. State Department of Ecology officials have even recognized that the state doesn’t have much of a plan for dealing with oil spills on the railways.

At any rate, I’d hope the railroad would deal with an oil spill faster than they dealt with the derailment and resulting grain spill outside of Montesano, which took a full month to clean up — and angered neighbors because of the grain had fermented, leaving a horendous smell.

Haka says there were just a lot of delays in finding a place to take the grain, since a couple places fell through and says it won’t happen again.

Meantime, a report commissioned by the Western Organization of Resource Councils says that should all of the coal and oil export facilities in the region be approved, rail traffic across the Northwest would quadruple.

“The economic benefits of these proposals are incredibly modest. The costs are off the charts,” state House finance committee chairman Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, told KPLU, an affiliate of National Public Radio. “If, for example, we have to do grade separation in south Seattle or in Edmonds, or in Marysville, or along the Columbia River that can negate all the taxes generated from every one of these plants, for years and years, and years. Just two, three or four grade separations could wipe out every economic benefit.”

A grade separation means that the rail cars would go up on a special trestle and the cars can go underneath it.

In Aberdeen, at Olympic Gateway Mall, there’s talk of a grade separation to help the existing, increased traffic — and still questions on how it would be funded. A study is happening now.

During the July 4th holiday, I got stuck for an hour waiting for a train blocking people from coming or leaving the SPLASH Festival. It was the second time in just a few hours that the train had blocked access for so long. What kind of awful timing is that to do to one of Aberdeen’s most popular festivals?

An acquaintance of mine who works at TOP Foods says a train blocked access to his job for two hours just last week. I thought the Port and the railroad had teamed up to build new sidings and rail yards to deal with this issue. Weren’t the wait times supposed to be brought down to 15 minutes? What happened?

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at