Some facts: More than 170,000 people in Seattle live within a half-mile radius of railroad tracks on which tankers carry volatile crude to refiners on the coast. First responders have not seen a worst-case-scenario response plan were an explosion to happen in the century-old freight tunnel running directly underneath downtown Seattle. Four oil trains have derailed in the United States and Canada since February, generating massive fires, and federal officials estimate some 10 derailments a year over the next 20 years.
If they're right, we could see six more derailments by the end of 2015. Who's to say one of them won't happen in Seattle?
That's why Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) hosted a press conference on Tuesday with Mayor Ed Murray, King County executive Dow Constantine, new Seattle fire chief Harold Scoggins, and the Valley Regional Fire Authority's Eric Robertson, pressuring the US Department of Transportation to set higher standards for oil trains as soon as possible.
Cantwell's proposed legislation—which she introduced with Senator Patty Murray and senators from Wisconsin and California—would do five main things:
• Set volatility standards for crude coming out of the Bakken
• Ban older tank car models
• Set aside $40 million for first-responder training and equipment
• Demand that railroads share oil-train route info with first responders
• Demand that railroads develop worst-case-scenario response plans
The DOT already missed a January deadline to create oil-train safety rules, and now the agency anticipates setting final standards in May. Cantwell and company say DOT isn't moving fast enough—not when an oil train, like the kind moving through Washington State every week, exploded in Canada two years ago, killing 47 people.
"That blast leveled a half-a-mile radius," Cantwell said. "If that happened in Seattle, the effects would be catastrophic."
Cantwell added that while it's cheaper for Bakken producers to cut oil-train cargo with butane and natural gas, oil refineries on the coast don't necessarily want more volatile tankers, either. When asked whether it might take an oil-train disaster in an urban area to get the oil industry and regulators to change, Cantwell gave a chilling, one-word response: "Yes."
"No single city, or tribe, or county, or state can stand up against the formidable trillion-dollar oil industry," County Executive Dow Constantine said. "But if we stand together, as we do today, we can make our voices heard at the national level."
Another revelation from the presser: Seattle fire chief Harold Scoggins has not seen or been made aware of any worst-case-scenario plan for an oil-train disaster in the King Street tunnel. "We have to get a better plan of what it would look like—that's where a worst-case-scenario plan could come into play, so we know exactly what we're dealing with," he said.
Earlier this year, Washington Fire Chiefs wrote to Burlington Northern Santa Fe CEO Matt Rose, demanding more transparency from the railway company.
In related news, today we learned that the United States ranks as the world's number-one oil producer for the third year in a row. Okay, so, is this what an "all-of-the-above" energy strategy really means? Sidestepping public safety and climate change realities in order to appease the oil industry's bottom line?
Let's watch that video again.