‘More Work To Do’
Wednesday, January 6, 2021
‘MORE WORK TO DO’: Perhaps no event illustrates the importance of Whatcom County Council’s protracted work on the Cherry Point Amendments more vividly than the derailment of a train carrying volatile crude oil that caught fire last month near Custer.
The 108-car train was carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Ferndale refineries when 10 cars derailed. Five of the cars burned as firefighters battled to contain the blaze and keep it from spreading to other cars. A second fire also erupted later in the evening, which was also contained, according to Courtney Wallace, regional BNSF Railway public information officer.
The train was traveling at 7 mph before the accident, making it a low-speed derailment. The derailment forced business and home evacuations within a mile of the wreckage, and environmental cleanup of spilled product continues. The cause of the derailment remains under investigation.
“Clearly,” Congressman Rick Larsen said in a brief (under)statement following the event, “there may be more work to do” to improve the safety of transport of oil by rail.
“We’re grateful first responders quickly helped people get out of harm’s way, and brought this oil fire under control. It is a relief that the oil tank cars have not exploded, as we’ve seen occur in other oil train derailments” Eddy Ury, manager of RE Sources’ Climate & Energy Policy, said.
Ury has been the architect of a great deal of consensus-building on Whatcom County’s proposed land-use amendments that seek to limit and better control crude oil shipments in the Cherry Point industrial zone. Those amendments are expected to be reviewed and approved by County Council early this year.
In the Northwest region, there are nine freight derailments per month, on average. Four oil refineries in Washington receive crude oil unit trains, including two in the Cherry Point industrial zone near Ferndale. In June 2016, a crude oil train bound for Washington derailed and exploded along the Columbia River near Mosier, Oregon. In the weeks following that incident, Whatcom County Council introduced new policies to limit risks and hazards from oil shipment expansions, and enacted a moratorium on permits that would increase crude oil transshipment. The interim moratorium has been extended 10 times, and currently remains in effect through May 2021.
The County Council is expected to introduce an ordinance in early 2021—nearing its final stages of policymaking after years of public process—that would limit hazardous shipment expansion projects by amending development rules for new and existing fossil fuel industries in the Cherry Point industrial zone.
As Council has worked toward these amendments a great deal of consensus has been hammered out among petroleum interests and the refineries and environmental and community activists seeking to improve outcomes at Cherry Point. If not outright agreement, there is at least acknowledgement that the amendments are neither overly burdensome or unworkable, and that outcomes can indeed be improved in the shipment of unrefined fossil fuels.
Oil trains, moving through communities in the Puget Sound region each day, are the most visible and external evidence of this industry—and they are relatively recent arrivals. Prior to 2012, only a small amount of crude oil was moved by rail. The County permitted oil train shipments to Cherry Point as recently as 2013. Today, six or more of these two-mile-long trains move through the region each day.
Derailments, just like vehicle accidents, happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s the underlying track structure. Sometimes the cause is operator error, sometimes trains will sideswipe one another. Some derailments are the result of a mechanical failure of the train itself. And, yes, there are external factors of concern as well.
In November, two Bellingham women were arrested and charged with terrorist attacks and other violence after they allegedly placed a “shunt” on railway tracks south of Fairhven. A shunt disrupts the low-level electrical current on the tracks and can disable various safety features.
“Since January there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties—causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems, and, in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals,” U.S. Attorney Brian Moran noted in charging papers.
According to the criminal complaint, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the placement of shunts on the BNSF tracks since January of last year. And while the cause of the Custer derailment is still under investigation by federal transportation safety officials, a deliberate derailment has not been ruled out.
And yet, even if the derailment should be demonstrated to be the result of malice or criminal intent, the underlying wisdom of the Cherry Point amendments is still sound in trying to limit the number of these bomb trains moving through our community. County Council’s work is still valid in its intent.The narrative is unchanged, even strengthened.
“All of those refineries in the Puget Sound region of Washington state are well-supplied with crude oil that arrives by vessel and by pipeline. They were operating for years and years before they ever had oil trains,” “Sightline Institute’s director of energy policy Eric de Place observed in an interview. “
“We know we need to transition away from fossil fuels. Why not start by banning the part of that fossil fuel economy that’s manifestly dangerous to our lives and to our property?”
The Gristle expects a 4-3 split on Council’s approval of the amendments. Given recent events, their approval should be unanimous.