Seattleites have used their bodies to try and block trains carrying highly volatile crude oil through the city. Now activists are trying a new tactic: to make state and Skagit County officials consider the impact of a Shell oil-by-rail project near Anacortes on neighborhoods in Seattle, 75 miles south of Shell's Puget Sound refinery.
Shell has proposed building an oil-by-rail spur near Anacortes, which would allow trains to transport crude oil to its refinery. Currently, the Shell refinery receives much of its crude by water. If approved, the project could increase the number of oil trains running through Seattle by an additional six per week.
In April of last year, Skagit County determined that the Shell project would not have an adverse impact on the environment, and therefore wouldn't need an environmental impact statement (EIS). But then environmental groups appealed the decision to the Skagit County Hearing Examiner and won.
This past week marked the opening phase of the EIS—a long process of public meetings that seeks to shed light on the impacts of building out more crude-by-rail infrastructure.
Soliciting this kind of public input about a refinery's rail proposal could take a whole year, which is why Seattle activists are inserting themselves into the process. On Monday night, 263 people, many of them from Seattle, attended a meeting in Lynnwood to ask officials at Skagit County and the Department of Ecology to consider the risks to communities situated near the tracks.
This longer public input process is a somewhat new phenomenon for refineries like Shell's. Before a 2013 crude oil derailment and explosion killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a number of Washington refineries had proposed oil-by-rail projects and received permits without much fuss.
Activists are hoping that Skagit County and state officials will impose certain safety conditions on Shell's permits for its spur, or reject those permits outright. Right now all Seattle can do is ask BNSF for pieces of safety information, but BNSF has no legal reason to provide it.
Crude oil tank cars pose a particular risk for cities like Seattle, where oil trains wind through densely populated neighborhoods like Georgetown and the International District to reach refineries up north. In February, a US Department of Transportation study projected that crude oil and ethanol trains will derail an average of 10 times per year over the next two decades. A derailment along the Seattle route could cause immense loss of life, and even a small spill could poison a waterway for decades. At the same time, the city and the state have made limited progress on regulating crude oil-by-rail transport, which is overseen by the federal government.
"This train will also go right through the International District, and as many of you know, [where] many elders, youth, indigenous people, homeless people, and a lot of marginalized folks live," Bayan PNW organizer Katrina Pestaño said. "We don't want to give more cause for health risk and also exploding oil trains to go through that community that's already marginalized."
Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green, also connected expanding fossil fuel infrastructure to the unequal burdens of climate change. "Our communities are being bombarded by the impacts of climate change," they said. "When we hear about oil trains coming through our neighborhoods, this is directly connected and we want to ensure that there are no more sacrifices or compromises because it will be disproportionately low-income people, working class people, indigenous people, and communities of color here [and] in the global south that are going to feel the impacts. So no oil trains."
But even though several of Monday night's speakers spoke out against increased oil train traffic in general, it's not clear how the EIS process would block trains from moving through Seattle. An EIS with a broader scope would simply assess the risks of increased train traffic in Seattle.
A later permitting process could, however, result in Shell compelling BNSF to step up some safety measures.
"What usually happens is conditions can be placed on permits," Washington State Department of Ecology spokesperson Larry Altose said. "So whether it gets to rejection is possible, but we don't see it that frequently."
There is another group of people seeking to reject oil trains, and their effort could be successful. Earlier this year, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community filed a lawsuit against BNSF, seeking to hold the railway company to a 1991 easement agreement that restricted train traffic across tribal land to two 25-car trains a day. If they win, oil train traffic running through Seattle to refineries near Anacortes could slow to a trickle. In September, a federal judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
UPDATE: Shell's Puget Sound refinery spokesperson Cory Ertel had this to say about public safety concerns voiced by activists:
Our employees live in the communities near our refinery, and Shell is committed to building and operating a safe and modern rail unloading facility, and to working with the railroad to protect our neighbors and the environment we all value. The other four refineries in Washington state have been operating similar facilities without incident for some time now. We welcome a robust review of our proposal and look forward to working with Skagit County and the Department of Ecology as they conduct this EIS.
This post has been updated.