Deadly Crossing

Neglected bridges and exploding oil trains

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A survey of 250 oil train bridges across America found that almost half showed signs of considerable deterioration, including missing or crumbling concrete, partially washed-away footings, rotted pilings and badly corroded steel beams, according to a report released this week.

Determining whether the problems found by three environmental groups pose a threat to public safety is almost impossible, however, because the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rarely inspects the nation’s estimated 100,000 rail bridges, including some built more than 100 years ago. Instead the agency leaves that responsibility to the railroads, which don’t make their inspection records public.

Most of us assume that bridges are regularly inspected and that there is careful government oversight, but that is not the case for thousands of railroad bridges around the nation. The owners of those bridges (mostly railroad companies) are allowed to set their own load limits, speed limits and inspection and maintenance schedules. The public has little or no access to the information about how safe they are. We don’t know who the inspectors are, or what their qualifications are. And we are denied most information about how much and what kinds of dangerous cargo is crossing these bridges.

On Tues., Nov. 10, Waterkeeper Alliance and ForestEthics released a first-of-its-kind investigative report, “Deadly Crossings: Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains,” which highlights significant public safety threats to communities and waterways around the country. Twenty-one Waterkeepers around the country contributed, including the Hudson Riverkeeper, San Francisco Baykeeper, Columbia Riverkeeper, Spokane Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, and others. As part of the report, North Sound Baykeeper staff examined 30 bridges over the Nooksack, Skagit, Samish, and Stillaguamish rivers and other creeks and sloughs. The first observation was the bridge over the Swinomish Channel. Here’s a bit of what we observed:

Paddling a canoe north out of Swinomish Channel toward Padilla Bay is not for the faint of heart. Its position in the landscape combines opposing forces of wind, waves, and current—creating challenges for little boats. Padilla Bay is shallow, a lot of power boaters ply these waters to and from La Conner and the San Juan Islands, adding to the mix. But my partner and I were on a mission—we, along with 21 Waterkeepers around the country, were inspecting bridges where oil trains cross our waterways.

The swinging bridge over the Swinomish Channel dates to 1891, and partially replaced in 1953 with a 368-foot swing/draw-span bridge that pivots when a train approaches. We launched minutes after a 100-plus-car unit oil train crossed toward the Tesoro Refinery, and watched it pivot after the crossing. A dozen power boats who’d been waiting powered up to continue on their way and began to move. The strong current pushed us toward the boats, so we back-paddled along the shore, prepared for big wakes that would soon be headed our way. After the boats cleared out, we paddled into the midchannel to look at the bridge.

I’m not an engineer—I’m a clean water advocate with lots of experience documenting pollution from all sorts of sources. My assistant was an ace canoe handler, and together we had the skills to safely negotiate the bridge despite the waves and boat wakes. We looked for missing and crumbling concrete pilings, rot, rust, loose bolts and the like. We took a lot of pictures, and then sat directly under the bridge and looked up at it with binoculars.

We saw a lot of rust, and a big crack in one of the pier pads that supports the swinging portion of the bridge. Over the next two weeks we continued these inspections visiting bridges over the Samish, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Nooksack rivers, sloughs and creeks along the BNSF route. At about half of the bridges we observed one or more problems: evidence of cracked, crumbling and eroded pier foundations, severe rust, loose bolts and brackets, and cracked and rotten wooden support structures. What’s most concerning about these problems is that if oil trains crashed or caught fire in these places, the oil would be very difficult or impossible to clean up. In several places, these bridges are upstream of municipal water supplies.

Northwest Washington is already seeing huge amounts of crude oil brought in on trains. Three of the four refineries in Whatcom and Skagit counties already accept a tas many as 15 oil trains every week. The fourth, Shell’s refinery near Anacortes, is in the middle of an environmental impact statement with the intention of adding another six trains per week. One-hundred-car-long unit oil trains are among the heaviest trains on the tracks. The sloshing of liquid cargo intensifies weight and momentum’s impact on infrastructure.

Concerns about the risk posed by these trains are far from hypothetical. The recent spike in use of oil trains by industry has been accompanied by a spike in the frequency and severity of accidents. Last week, two trains derailed in separate incidents in Wisconsin. The first spilled about 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River. The second spilled about 1,000 gallons of crude oil on the ground. In 2015 alone there have been seven oil train derailments and five of them have resulted in fiery explosions. Running this many heavy trains full of toxic crude over aging infrastructure is dangerous.

Northwest Washington knows full well that failing to maintain bridges has consequences. In 2013 we all saw the pictures of the I-5 bridge collapsed into the Skagit River. About half a mile upstream from that bridge is the BNSF-owned Skagit River Railroad Bridge which was built in 1916. Featured in the “Deadly Crossing” report, this bridge has significant rust on beams and eroded and cracked piers. Were an oil train derailment to occur as part of a bridge failure the result would be catastrophic. Just downstream is the intake for the Anacortes water treatment plant, which serves drinking water to not only Anacortes, but also La Connor, Oak Harbor, and the Whidbey Naval Air Station.

ForestEthics and the Waterkeepers Alliance are calling for significant changes. The railroads must assume responsibility for the risk of running dangerous oil trains over questionable bridges. Public safety officials—and the public at large—should be given access to all existing inspection and repair reports. The Federal Railroad Administration should be given broad oversight and responsibility for all rail infrastructure. Bridge records should be not only transparent, but also organized and accessible to facilitate easy access to information so that first responders and community planners can be prepared. Any infrastructure supporting oil trains should be subject to independent, rigorous inspection. And deficient infrastructure must be replaced. Until these changes are made, oil trains should not be allowed to pass over public waterways.

Read the full report at
Lee First is is a professional wetland scientist with the North Sound Baykeeper Team.  Alex Ramel is Extreme Oil Field Director at ForestEthics

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