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A Surge in Oil and Coal Transportation in the Northwest Raises Environmental Concerns

The development of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has led to a surge in oil production in the U.S. Because the expansion of oil production has outpaced the expansion of the nation’s pipeline system, much of the new oil is moved by train. According to a recent Seattle magazine article, railroads in the U.S. transported more crude oil in 2013 than in the past 30 years combined. This is reflected in our region by greatly increased rail traffic as oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota and Montana is transported to terminals in the Northwest for export to China.

Northwest communities have already seen a major increase in rail traffic carrying coal from Idaho and Montana for export, and the oil trains just heighten the public concern about the environmental and public health impacts associated with the transportation of these potentially hazardous commodities. The coal transportation issue has been on the radar in Washington communities for a while now .

So what role do local governments play in addressing the impacts of this increased rail transportation and responding to public pressure?

Oil Transportation Concerns

Worries about oil transportation involve not only the movement of crude oil by rail, but also the shipping of oil through Washington waters. The regulation of rail transportation largely falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government, while the state has greater authority over vessel transportation. The most direct role of local governments is in the permitting of the associated refineries and terminal facilities.

Cities and counties that the trains pass through are also concerned about the effects on their communities. These impacts include health and pollution issues associated with railroad and tanker accidents, traffic congestion at rail crossings, air quality concerns, and the indirect impacts of increased greenhouse gases on the environment. On the other hand, some port communities welcome the jobs that come with the expansion of terminal facilities.

Several derailment accidents in recent years, including the tragic July 2013 explosion and spill in the town of Lac-M├ęgantic, Quebec, have galvanized public concern with rail transportation of oil. A near disaster occurred last summer much closer to home, when three tank cars of a 100-car train en route to Anacortes, each carrying about 28,000 gallons of crude oil, derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle. No oil spilled, and there were no injuries, but it was a wake-up call about the risks posed by oil trains. The Bakken oil being shipped across the Northwest is particularly volatile, and the older model tank cars used to move flammable liquids are not retrofitted to meet new federal requirements.

State Study of Oil Transportation

In response to widespread public concern, the Legislature directed and funded a proviso in April 2014 requiring the Department of Ecology to conduct a study on marine and rail oil transportation in consultation with several other agencies. Subsequently, Governor Inslee issued a directive outlining key components to be addressed. The study focuses on fostering public health and safety and environmental protection in light of the increased  marine and rail transportation of oil. Stakeholders in the study include local governments, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), the Washington State Emergency Management Division, and other interested public and private parties.

Preliminary findings and recommendations are now available, and public meetings to discuss the report are scheduled for October 28, 2014 in Spokane and October 30, 2014 in Olympia. The preliminary report recommends that the state provide additional funding to assess oil transportation risks and to develop enhanced capability to handle oil spills. It also identifies the need to provide additional statutory authority to the UTC.

Local Government Responses

As the governments closest to the people, local governments are hearing from their constituents about oil and coal transportation impacts – both pro and con – especially in communities like Vancouver, Bellingham, and Grays Harbor where terminal facilities are proposed, but also in places along rail lines and on Puget Sound. While most cities and counties have limited roles in the permitting of coal and oil terminals, the impacts of the rail and waterborne transport of coal and oil affect many communities across the state. Local governments are key participants in the environmental review of these major facilities, and quite a few cities and counties have adopted resolutions opposing the coal and oil terminal facilities and requesting full disclosure of environmental impacts.

Any decisions on the proposed coal terminals, including the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham and the Millennium Bulk Terminals at Longview, are on hold while draft environmental impact statements are being prepared.

New and expanded oil transport facilities are proposed in Vancouver (the region’s largest facility), Grays Harbor, Anacortes, and Ferndale. Environmental review is also underway for oil terminals in Vancouver and for three proposed terminals in Grays Harbor. In its new Open Data Portal, AWC has posted a map showing crude oil by rail facilities.

The Tesoro Corporation’s proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver could handle as much as 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The City of Vancouver has adopted a resolution opposing the oil terminal and maintains a Hot Topic webpage for Oil and Coal Project proposals. Following the oil train derailment in Seattle in July, Seattle adopted a resolution opposing oil transportation by rail. Many other local governments have adopted similar resolutions, including King County, Auburn, Bellingham, Chehalis, Hoquiam, Spokane, and Winlock, and more are proposed.

Additional Resources on Oil and Coal Transportation

Stay tuned for more on oil and coal transportation as the draft environmental impact statements and the State’s final Marine and Rail Oil Transportation Study become available.

Photo courtesy of Roy Luck.

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Photo of Carol Tobin

About Carol Tobin

Carol served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants and wrote about a wide variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.