The US Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 crude oil or ethanol train derailments a year over the next 20 years. Two trains carrying highly flammable crude oil pass through Seattle every day—that's two trains passing beneath downtown Seattle in the Great Northern Tunnel, two trains running right alongside Safeco Field, and two trains chugging along the waterfront.
"It's a matter of time before these [derailments] start to happen more locally," mayoral senior policy advisor Steve Lee told the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee at City Hall on Tuesday.
This is not a new problem. People have been freaking out about "bomb" trains in the Northwest since Bakken producers started ramping up their shipments out of North Dakota. But is there anything we can do about it at the city-level? To answer that question, Council Member Mike O'Brien introduced a new joint resolution with the mayor's office that asks Burlington Northern Santa Fe to fork over more information about its disaster planning. The good news: It passed unanimously out of committee. The bad news: It probably won't accomplish much.
The resolution asks for the following from BNSF:
• Worst-case scenarios for a crude oil train derailment
• Proof of the railroad's catastrophic insurance coverage
• Comprehensive emergency response plans
• Analysis of the railroad's safest hazardous materials routes
• The installation of safety and ventilation systems within the Great Northern tunnel
• The restriction of crude oil transport during big events at the stadiums
• "Full responsibility for the risk [Warren Buffet, Berkshire Hathaway, and BNSF] impose on Seattle residents"
But the new resolution isn't exactly saying much that hasn't already been said to the railroad. Earlier this year, the Washington Fire Chiefs wrote something similar to the railway company, demanding that it turn over information about similar items within 30 days. In response, BNSF said that they were setting up a meeting with the firefighters.
That's not to say that the resolution isn't a good one. It expresses support for a federal "Crude-by-Rail Safety Act" introduced in Congress this past March and urges President Obama to keep the lid on crude oil exports. (Lifting the federal export ban could radically transform the Pacific Northwest into a big, volatile network pumping crude oil to the coast.)
But someone had to play a crude oil realist, or Eeyore, at City Hall. This time it was Nick Licata. "[The resolution] is also a disappointing acknowledgement of how little authority we have to restrict the number of trains going through our city," he said. "These are good steps we're taking. I wish we had more authority to deal with these problems, but I imagine we've pushed them as far as we can here."
Here's the BNSF response to the resolution, which sounds a lot like what they've said before:
BNSF is complying with Federal requirements and working with state and local agencies towards a mutual interest in ensuring Safe rail transportation. BNSF continues to invest to ensure optimum track conditions in Wa state, inspect main routes daily in Wa state with enhanced engineering and Operations standards and practices. BNSF performed at record Safety levels in 2014. We will continue to focus on Safety as our top priority to protect the railroad, the communities and environment.
We are reviewing the resolution further.
Is it going to take a disaster to force the federal government's hand in creating real regulations for crude oil shipments? For fuck's sake, let's hope not. There's only so much City Hall can do.