Last July, the town center of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec was incinerated, killing 47 people, when a train carrying crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Formation region derailed.
"Its cars collided, triggering a series of deafening explosions, unleashing a river of burning oil and fast-moving walls of fire, heat so scorching that even days later, recovery workers could only work in 15-minute shifts," the New York Times wrote in a year-end obituary.
Every week, about a dozen of these trains pass through downtown Seattle carrying the same type of highly flammable oil in the same sort of unsafe tank cars that exploded in Quebec. They pass both sports stadiums and enter a tunnel directly under Pike Place Market. And if the oil and rail industries get their way, by the time the Seahawks play their opening game at CenturyLink Field next September, there could be as many as 15 to 16 of these potentially explosive oil trains passing through each week, according to estimates from the Sightline Institute. That's up from zero oil trains two years ago.
Sound crazy to talk about the risk of exploding trains incinerating downtown? The Feds don't think so.
In an unprecedented joint statement with its Canadian counterpart this January, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned that "major loss of life" could result from an oil train accident. The agency says Bakken crude oil may be more likely to ignite at temperatures as low as 73 degrees, and it's urging that oil trains be rerouted away from population centers. If there was ever a local population center, it's our downtown and our stadium area.
"Until we can be sure that they won't explode, we should hit the pause button," says Eric de Place, policy director at Sightline. "I think this is something every person should be worried about: being incinerated."
There's a growing outcry over oil trains—shipment of crude oil by rail has skyrocketed nationally over the past four years. In December, another oil train derailed and exploded near Casselton, North Dakota, prompting an evacuation. "We dodged a bullet by having it out of town, but this is too close for comfort," the town's mayor said.
This week, Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien introduced a resolution that expresses "deep concern" over "the threat to life, safety, and the environment of potential spills and fires" and calling for greater regulation of oil trains.
"Instead of waiting for a tragedy locally, let's be forward-thinking about this and get out ahead of it," O'Brien says.
But the resolution is only a first step. It doesn't mention global warming—it should go without saying that continuing to tap fossil-fuel reserves will only worsen catastrophic climate change—and it doesn't call for a moratorium on any increased shipments of oil by rail. In a December letter, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, called on Governor Jay Inslee to declare such a moratorium. A spokesman for the governor says the Department of Ecology is engaged in a review and Inslee won't take a position until they're done.
The danger is imminent, though. Currently, the trains are transporting Bakken crude oil through Seattle using DOT-111 tank cars. It's those same DOT-111 tank cars that exploded in Quebec and North Dakota. The NTSB has repeatedly warned that they are unsafe and vulnerable to puncture.
And the danger goes beyond being vaporized, says Adam Gaya, an activist with the environmental group 350.org. "Even if these trains don't explode, their cargo is still deadly—contributing to climate change, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels," he says.
Requests for comment to Tesoro, one of the oil companies looking to ship Bakken crude oil to refineries in Anacortes, were referred to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas wouldn't answer specific questions about which trains carrying what oil will pass through Seattle, citing rules against disclosure. He also declined to respond to questions about global warming.
But he says the company is working to make shipping crude by rail safer and to reduce the speed of trains where the risks are greatest. The rail industry, he says, is seeking an "aggressive timetable for phasing out older DOT-111 tank cars." He also touts the safety of oil trains, calling it "one of the safest ways to move crude oil."
But Gaya accuses the industry of trying to "transform the Pacific Northwest into a superhighway for shipping all of the dirtiest forms of energy."
Local officials have been strong and united in their opposition to transporting coal by rail through the region. That's the kind of opposition oil trains deserve. So that we don't get blown up.