Energy | Environment

Canada's Oil Train Disaster Sparks Northwest Concern

The weekend’s deadly oil-train derailment and explosion in the Canadian province of Quebec has raised concerns in the Pacific Northwest, where there are several proposals to increase the amount of oil transported into to the region by train.

By Monday afternoon the confirmed death toll had reached 13, with 50 people still missing after Saturday’s derailment of more than 70 tanker cars. They were filled with oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota - home of the largest oil boom in recent U.S. history.

Bakken oil is also moving through the Northwest in increasing amounts, with three sites in Washington and Oregon receiving oil by train from North Dakota, and eight more in various stages of the permitting process. The proposals could bring oil trains to ports along the Columbia River, Puget Sound and the Washington coast.

“These kind of incidents absolutely give us pause,” said Curt Hart, with the Washington Department of Ecology, “But we don’t have a lot of regulatory authority over railroads.”

The department is instead focusing on preparing for a possible cleanup and has been conducting spill response drills.

“This is one of those cases where the worst case scenario has been exceeded by the reality of events,” said Gary Shigenaka, an oil spill response expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. NOAA funded a report by the University of Washington assessing the risks of transporting oil.

Frank Holmes, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, says despite the recent tragedy, the increase in oil trains in the Northwest isn’t cause for concern.

“I don’t know that there’s anything unique about crude oil in rail tanks. The railroad moves thousands of different products every day,” he told EarthFix.

Each train can carry up to 3 million gallons of oil. A new report from the Sightline Institute, an environmental think tank in Seattle, highlights the combined increase in oil train traffic if the proposed rail to ship terminals are built around the region.

“The experience in Quebec is a little like the ghost of Christmas future,” said Eric de Place, author of the report. “We don’t know if that’s actually what’s in store for us or not but we do know it’s a very similar kind of oil train.”

The largest new oil terminal is proposed for Vancouver, Wash. It would move more than 350,000 barrels of oil per day from trains onto ships bound mainly for West Coast refineries.

The Port of Vancouver is set to vote on that proposal on July 23. A public meeting will be held on July 22.

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