A train carrying nearly 100 cars of crude oil went off the track under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle early Thursday. Nobody was hurt, no oil leaked and there was no threat to the public when five of the train’s 102 cars went off the track about 2 a.m., said BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas.
But concerns about the impacts of increased oil-vessel and train traffic were stoked by the morning derailment. It came the same day as a hearing in Seattle on increased oil transport to Whatcom County. The hearing, about a dock expansion proposed by BP at its Cherry Point refinery, was preceded by a rally just across the street.
Some of the more than 50 protesters held signs of trains colliding and pictures of explosions; others had signs reading, “Protect our Puget Sound from oil spills” and “No one should die for oil profits.”
Chris Wilke, executive director for Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, called Thursday’s train derailment a stark reminder of the dangers involved in the transport of oil.
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“We don’t have proper safety measures in place to deal with this,” he said. “BP and other oil companies say we have to accept this risk, and they are not doing anything to mitigate it.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine used the derailment to bolster his opposition to the increasing number of oil trains in Washington.
“The incident only shows how little we know about what moves through our communities by rail, and how thin is the margin of safety for the people of King County from hazards of shipping millions of gallons of highly flammable crude oil that can easily be ignited by heat or an electric spark,” he wrote in a news release.
On Wednesday, the federal government proposed rules that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars carrying crude oil and other highly flammable liquids. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wrote in his blog that he’d phoned U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to share his concerns about the derailment and “the potential for a larger rail accident in our community.” He’ll be carefully reviewing the new oil-train safety rules, he wrote.
The train that derailed was going slower than 5 mph and was pulling out of the BNSF rail yard when the wheels of the second of two locomotives left the track, as did a car loaded with sand and the next three cars, which were each filled with an estimated 28,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil, Melonas said. An adjacent rail line remained open, he said.
The train, loaded at Bakken, N.D., was bound for the refinery at Anacortes, Melonas said. The tanker cars that derailed are newer, enhanced-safety models with special safeguards, he said. The train also was traveling on newly upgraded track.
Melonas said an investigation is under way into the cause of the derailment.
Every member of the Seattle City Council on Wednesday signed a letter to Foxx, the U.S. transportation secretary, requesting an emergency order to prohibit the shipment of Bakken crude oil through Seattle in older DOT-111 tank train cars.
“Banning the shipment of highly flammable crude oil in legacy DOT-111 tank cars is necessary to abate the unsafe conditions posing an imminent hazard to human life, communities and the environment,” the letter states.
Melonas said the pushback is against a transportation system with a proven safety record: There have been no hazmat-related fatalities on BNSF tracks in any of its northern tier operations, from North Dakota to the West Coast ports, since 1981, he said.
Oil has been shipped by rail through Washington for decades, he said. What’s new is the use of so-called unit trains: trains made up of more than 100 cars, going from a single destination to a single destination. Unit trains loaded with oil have been deployed by BNSF on Washington tracks for the past two years Melonas said.
Every 24 hours, about 2½ unit trains on average loaded with 100 or so cars of oil roll through Washington, he said. About 70 percent of the BNSF cars in use in the Northwest are of the new design, with safety improvements including thicker steel construction and safety mechanisms around tank valves, Melonas said.
The railroad has spent $235 million on track improvements in Washington state alone this year, he said. The railroad is expanding operations to meet demand, including 17 miles of new track between Pasco and Spokane, and hiring about 600 people.
So far, there have been no spills in Washington by unit trains carrying oil, said Lisa Copeland, spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology. But concern is heightened along with shipping volumes.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray this week held a hearing on safety issues related to rail transport of crude oil. Those shipments are expected to increase from 55 million barrels of crude this year to more than 200 million annually because of proposals to expand oil refining and shipping in communities across the state, including Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham and Vancouver.
Gov. Jay Inslee last month called for a review of state readiness to respond to an oil-train spill, which is under way and will result in a final report in December, Copeland said. The state has a plan in place to respond to oil spills in water, but not along train tracks, she said.
“We have an excellent response capability on the marine side,” Copeland said. “But it wasn’t until 2012 that we had our first (unit) oil train. This is all kind of new to us. We are looking at where we are well postured, and where do we need improvements, what gaps can we identify. We need to keep our communities safe if we are going to move oil through our state in this way.”
She said Ecology staff were on the scene monitoring the derailment Thursday, and had deployed oil-containment booms, just in case.
Melonas said the BNSF, operating in Washington since 1873, is very sensitive to safety concerns. “From an industry perspective, we learn from these events elsewhere. Safety is our number one priority.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Zahra Farah contributed to this report.Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org