Seattles Raging Grannies try to bring some awareness of oil train risks to the Department of Ecology in Olympia.
  • Charles Adam Conatzer and Ashok Chandwaney
  • Seattle's Raging Grannies try to bring some "awareness" of oil train risks to the Department of Ecology in Olympia.
Never mind the traffic on Interstate 5—Washington is poised to become clogged with oil trains. Last month, the Inslee administration unveiled the preliminary findings and recommendations of a $300,000 oil train safety study. The report shows that this state has gone from transporting virtually zero gallons of crude oil by train, just four years ago, to moving 2.87 billion gallons of the goopy fuel around the state in 2015.

The trains are often so lengthy, the study notes, that people may cause accidents by attempting to dart across at unsafe moments in order to avoid waiting forever for a train to arrive and pass.

It's all very interesting, but environmentalists are crying foul at the report and Inslee, whom the League of Conservation Voters dubbed upon his election in 2012 the country's "greenest governor." Greens beefing with greens? What's up?

For one, the enviros are questioning whether the Department of Ecology is allowing the "fox to guard the henhouse," as Matt Krogh, the U.S. Oil Campaign Director of ForestEthics (you might remember them from the oil train blast zone map they produced this summer), put it.

Yes, a thing called Google reveals that out of the ten authors of the study, three of them—David Hatzenbuhler, Robert G. Patton, Eric Lymanused of the Texas-based company MainLine Management—all held senior positions with Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad company for decades. MainLine lists BNSF, which is enjoying swollen profit margins as a result of the oil boom, as one of its primary clients.

But David Postman, an Inslee spokesperson, told me in an e-mail that the Department of Ecology is "unaware" if any of the contractors who worked on the report formerly worked for railroad companies.

Well, Seattle's Raging Grannies—a group of badass activist lady elders—are on it. Last Thursday, several of them sat down in front of the DOE's Olympia office, pictured above. "We're here to help the Department of Ecology learn how to say no to the oil industry," said Beth DeRooy, one of the grandmas, in a statement. "After granting permits to four illegal oil train terminals and letting former BNSF executives write their oil study, I was worried the folks over at the Department never learned how to say no and needed a little help from their grannies."

Since 2012, DOE has granted permits for four of Washington's five refineries to improve their capacity to receive oil-by-rail shipments, the group said.

And that's not okay, they argue, because of a little something called the Magnuson Amendment—probably one of the most awesome pieces of legislation in existence. The amendment is named for former Washington Senator Warren Magnuson, who quietly and cunningly slipped it onto the US Senate's consent calendar in 1977—going behind the back of the state's then-governor, who was planning to develop an oil port and pipeline at Cherry Point in Whatcom County. The amendment from Magnuson, long an environmental leader, instantly and effectively scuppered the move by placing limits on the expansion of oil infrastructure in and around Puget Sound.

But Inslee, who, remember, is supposed to be really strong on protecting the Washington's natural treasures and the planet, believes the Magnuson Amendment has no relevance to the oil-by-rail discussion. It was enacted, said Postman, to "limit the number of tanker ships coming into refineries and Ecology does not believe it applies to this situation. The terminals seeking permits for expansion in Washington would not have more capacity if approved, but would be allowed to receive product via rail, which they are not currently structured to do. "

What the heck does that mean?

It's "just false," fumed Eric de Place, Sightline Institute's Policy Director, when I asked him about it. "This bullshit... requires some extra interpretive dance that is not in the text of the amendment."

Approving the new rail terminals clearly would increase the ability to handle larger amounts of oil at those docks, he argued, and with the Obama administration appearing to move toward lifting the ban on oil exports, there's no reason not to expect that the oil from trains won't be transferred right over into tankers for export overseas. (You can read the full text of the Magnuson amendment here.)

"The study is not up to the task of fully addressing oil by rails," de Place continued. "When I read it, I was pretty deeply frustrated."

The study does not mention climate change except to declare that it, along with concerns related to tribal treaty rights, are "ancillary to the immediate concerns of this study." Ahmed Gaya, an activist with the group Rising Tide Seattle, called the report a "dog-and-pony show designed to distract the public from the real issue—Governor Inslee keeps permitting dangerous oil-train terminals."

The Sierra Club, meanwhile, complained that while "the study outlines basic information on the risks posed by oil trains and tankers, it doesn’t consider the significant public safety and environmental risks from cumulative impacts" of both oil and coal trains, of which there's also been a surge in recent years.

"You know, I actually worked to get Governor Inslee elected (even while running for office myself), and I'm certain he can be the governor we want him to be," Krogh, from ForestEthics, commented last week. "But we have to let him know what we want, and not leave Olympia wide open for the oil and coal company lobbyists."