• King County
  • THE SITUATION ROOM Where are the exploding holograms? C'mon, people.

On Tuesday, King County convened what it calls a "tabletop exercise" involving a who's who of people who you'll depend on to douse you in water after you catch on fire—or help you evacuate—if an oil train derails and explodes in Seattle. Local emergency responders (firefighters, for example) and officials from FEMA, the Coast Guard, Army National Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, National Transportation Safety Board, Sound Transit, King County International Airport, Port of Seattle, and Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad company (BNSF) were all there.

"This is a new and significant risk for our people, economy, and environment," said King County Executive Dow Constantine, referring to the tens-of-millions-fold increase in gallons of oil traffic passing through Seattle since 2011, transported by outdated tanker cars carrying highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken formation.

"They ran through a scenario of if an oil train derailed and exploded," said Constantine, "in the middle of the work day... Would the toxic cloud from the burning oil float over Seattle or a nearby community? Do we have enough buses and bus drivers to get people out? And how do we get the evacuation order out to the public?"

"As a result of this exercise," he said, "we are as ready as any county in the nation can be."

So what did the tabletop exercise actually involve? Walt Hubbard, King County's director of emergency management, said that for the first time ever, they went around the table and each group described their plan in the event of a spillage or explosion from an oil train derailment.

X marks the spot of an imagined oil train explosion. The little red dots? The nearest fire stations.
  • King County
  • X marks the spot of an imagined oil train explosion. The little red dots? The nearest fire stations.
BNSF, the railroad company, has developed a reputation for closely guarding details about its rail freight even from regulators. But Hubbard says, "It would have been very easy for BNSF to have been seen as the bad guy in the room. They were very responsive and transparent...There was no question they didn't want to answer yesterday."

The exercise imagined a scenario of a derailment and explosion near Boeing in South Seattle. Hubbard said they did not discuss locations along the railroads where there's higher risks of derailment (here's a map of previous derailments in the vicinity). He called a non-catatstrohic derailment under Magnolia Bridge on July 24 "an attention getter."

Beyond the county level, Constantine echoed the Seattle City Council's call for an immediate federal ban on DOT-111 tanker cars. And, he said, he opposes the construction an enormous Tesoro oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington, to which much of this oil freight traffic would be routed. Governor Jay Inslee has the final say on whether to approve the terminal.