In recent years the Northwest has seen dramatic growth in proposed fossil fuel projects and shipping of crude oil and coal by rail. Oil-by-rail in all of North America increased 4,000 percent between 2010 and 2015. With that increase, we have also seen more derailments, explosions and oil spills than ever before. Soundkeeper is deeply involved in policy and advocacy work to protect Puget Sound communities from these disasters.
Oil by Rail
Oil shipments increasingly threaten to take over a railroad infrastructure that is aging and overtaxed. Since 2012 there have been active proposals in B.C., Oregon and Washington for two new oil pipelines and eleven oil-by-rail facilities. In 2013 more oil spilled from trains into rivers, lakes, and marine waters than in the prior forty years combined. In July of that year, a tragic oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec killed 47 people and destroyed the historic town center. Subsequent derailments of trains carrying volatile crude oil have demonstrated that even upgraded tanker cars expected to be safe will rupture and catch fire, creating a situation that emergency response personnel have testified is beyond their capacity to deal with.
In June 2016 an oil train derailed and caught fire in Mosier, Oregon, along the banks of the Columbia River. The 47,000 gallons of crude that leaked from the wreck polluted the river and contaminated groundwater. After responding to the crash, the Mosier fire chief called shipping Bakken crude by rail “insane”.
Railroads in the Puget Sound area run next to water bodies and through towns and cities. A spill or derailment would be catastrophic, endangering people and destroying habitat beyond hope of recovery, and could easily leave taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars since railroad insurance policies aren’t large enough to cover the cost.
Soundkeeper has submitted comments on local project proposals by Shell, BP and Tesoro to add rail traffic to their existing facilities, and sent a letter to the Governor calling for a moratorium on increased oil by rail infrastructure in Washington State. After the Mosier disaster, we joined regional partners in asking the Governor to halt oil train traffic through the state. We’ve also challenged the stormwater discharge permits for refineries in Washington, winning stronger restrictions on what they can put in the water. We continue to work with regional partners to ensure that local citizens have a voice in the process. In 2015 we participated in a nationwide inspection of railroad bridges with Waterkeeper Alliance, which revealed that much of the infrastructure required to transport oil by rail is in dangerous stages of disrepair. The subsequent report called for immediate action from railroad companies and regulatory agencies. We continue to monitor bridges in the Puget Sound area and are also tracking the process of updating the emergency response plan in Washington State.
A timeline of oil train derailments in North America from 2013-2016
Coal is the single-largest cause of global climate change and ocean acidification, and coal pollutants contribute to asthma, heart disease, cancer and stroke from the time the coal leaves the ground. Studies show that a significant amount of the mercury in our drinking water comes from coal burning. Rail cars traveling from the Powder River mines in Wyoming to Northwest ports lose between 500 and 2,000 pounds of coal along the way. In addition, the economic justification for exporting coal is shaky as coal use is dropping and prices have fallen.
Soundkeeper has found coal residue and chunks of coal near tracks and in waterways along coal train routes, and conducted a dive under the Ballard Bridge in Seattle that revealed coal in the sediment.
In 2013 Soundkeeper filed a lawsuit with a number of partners against BNSF and five coal companies for coal contamination of US waterways. In 2017, that lawsuit reached a settlement. BNSF agreed to clean up waterways contaminated by coal and pay $1 million dollars towards environmental restoration in the impacted areas.
Soundkeeper supported the Lummi Nation in their fight against the Gateway Pacific terminal at Cherry Point, which would have endangered Lummi treaty rights and put sensitive habitat at risk. We are also monitoring emerging research on ocean acidification. Puget Sound has some of the most corrosive waters on the planet, and increased fossil fuel consumption will only make the problem worse.
We are currently working with a coalition opposing the reopening of the John Henry No. 1 Coal Mine, in King County. The mine has been dormant for twenty years, but now the owners want to resume mining at the site despite a history of pollution violations and the potential impact to the surrounding community.
Full text of the January 2015 Lummi Nation letter to the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the Cherry Point terminal