Earlier this month, the head of a membership group representing firefighting agencies across the state wrote to the CEO of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway company, demanding that the company turn over information it has previously avoided sharing on crude oil shipments through the Pacific Northwest within 30 days. It's one of the strongest statements firefighters in this state have made on oil train safety issues—and speaks to the urgency of the risks at hand.
The Stranger obtained the letter from Oil Check NW, a watchdog group on oil safety in the region.
In the letter, Wayne Senter, executive director of Washington Fire Chiefs, cited four tanker derailments in the last few years—including one last year under Seattle's Magnolia Bridge—as reason for concern. "The WFC is well aware that even if an infinite amount of foam was available, we can only provide defensive firefighting," Senter wrote in the letter.
Senter went on to slam the oil transportation industry's lack of transparency as a clear public safety issue. "Normally we would be able to assess the hazard through right-to-know and other public documents; however, your industry has sought and gained exemptions to these sunshine laws," the letter reads. "This exemption does not mean that your industry is exempt from taking reasonable steps to ensure catastrophic incidents do not occur."
The letter continues:
Specifically, we request the following information:
1. Your railroad's own calculated Worst Case Scenarios for a potential crude oil train emergency in urban and sensitive environmental locales. What is the potential impact of a crude oil disaster in Washington communities?
2. Evidence of the levels of catastrophic insurance coverage your railroad has purchased relevant for potential serious releases in Washington State. For what level of potential disaster is your railroad covered?
3. Your high hazard flammable train Comprehensive Emergency Response Plans, both generic and for specific locations in Washington, urban and rural. Is there any credible emergency response to crude oil train disasters except evacuation? Please provide such plans covering all counties with crude train routes.
4. Your route analysis documentation and route selection results for Washington State., pursuant to 2007 Public Law 110-53 on urban hazmat safety and security routing, with the currently covered cargoes, especially chlorine and ammonia, as well as for the newly-recognized "key trains" of crude oil and ethanol. How have you weighted the 27 federal routing factors and whatever interchange agreements your railroad has struck with others to avoid high-risk areas?
The letter is dated March 5, and Senter requested that he receive the information within a month. It's a much faster way of trying to get BNSF to reveal exactly where its crude oil tankers are than, say, passing a bill through a fraught state legislature that would mandate more public disclosure. If BNSF obeys, that means firefighters might be able to get significantly more information about Pacific Northwest oil train shipments in the next week and a half.
We've reached out to BNSF and will update when we hear back. Read the full letter here.
UPDATE: "We have received the letter and we are responding back," said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesperson. He added that BNSF has reached out to set up a meeting with the Washington Fire Chiefs, and that, last year, Washington firefighters attended a BNSF-hosted training in oil train safety specifically. "We have not had a fatality as a result of a hazmat release on our entire northern tier, from the Great Lakes across the plains, to the Rockies, to the Pacific Northwest ports—not one fatality as the result of a hazmat release since 1981. That does not come by luck," Melonas said.