Local activists fight against oil trains traveling through the Northwest.

Story by Marina Price | Photos by Edward Clem

An oil train travels north along Samish Bay toward oil refineries in Ferndale, Washington. In July 2013, an unattended freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, damaging the city and claiming 47 lives.

Driving through downtown Mount Vernon, Washington on a dark windy night, you might not even notice the unassuming small home-turned-office building at 1015 2nd Street. But step inside, and it’s a whole new scene. Stacks of pizza boxes are balanced on the reception desk. Beer, wine and snacks sit on a folding table. Posters and protest signs line the walls. People of all ages are sitting on tables, counters and crowding into narrow hallways. It’s Oct. 6, 2016, and the members of the Project Skagit: Stop Oil Trains team are celebrating.

“It really caught us by surprise,” Eddy Ury said, while setting down a stack of papers titled, “Proposed Oil Terminals.” Ury is the Clean Energy Organizer at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, a nonprofit organization based out of Bellingham, Washington, a half-hour drive north.

In 2013, Shell Oil Company began working on a plan to increase their shipments of crude oil from North Dakota on trains running through Skagit County by six new oil trains per week. Ury and his team had been organizing letter-writing workshops, reviewing legal literature and identifying public comment periods they could use to speak with county officials who had the authority to halt the proposal.

But on Thursday afternoon, just three hours before members planned to discuss the next steps in tackling the proposal, Shell announced it was withdrawing from the plan, citing economic reasons.

“But we keep fighting that good fight,” a woman shouts from the crowd.

The fight for safer oil transport in Washington is just beginning. Shell’s announcement will give Ury and his counterparts time to direct their energy toward a similar proposal from Tesoro, another oil company with a refinery just a few kilometers south in Anacortes. Ury expects Shell will try again in a few years.

“They’re going to wait a few years until people aren’t paying attention,” he said.

The oil-by-rail conflicts in Washington state are relatively new ones. Mass crude oil-by-rail transport, using unit trains of 100 or more cars, didn’t happen before 2011 in Washington state.

Oil train cars sit on tracks in Ferndale, Washington. Some fear oil trains pose a threat to Whatcom County due to their risk of explosion if a crash occurs.

They only came about after large-scale fracking operations began in western North Dakota around the same time. The extracted crude oil needed to be refined, and refineries along Washington’s coast were accessible by rail.

Many of the concerns revolve around safety. A derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013 killed 47 people who lived near the tracks, destroyed 40 buildings and set the surrounding town ablaze. Sixteen oil cars derailed along the Columbia River in Oregon in June 2016, burning for 10 hours and spilling thousands of liters of oil. The town was evacuated and community members were required to boil their water, due to an unsafe emergency well.

Safety concerns have prompted the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes to go above and beyond the requirements. The refinery employs around 350 full-time workers and has a crude oil capacity of 120,000 barrels per day. The company began only using CPC-1232 cars in 2014, Brendan Smith, a spokesperson for Tesoro, said in an email. These cars are modified versions of DOT-111 cars, which are falling out of use due to safety hazards. DOT-111 cars were involved in the Lac-Mégantic disaster in 2013.

The company hasn’t had a spill large enough to require reporting at the Anacortes crude by rail offloading facility in three years, Smith said.

Over 3 million people live near railroad tracks in Washington, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. They are all within the “blast zone” for evacuation: a 0.8-kilometer radius for a derailed oil car and a 1.6-kilometer radius for a fire or spill.

Virginia Wolff is a retired family practice physician and oil-by-rail activist living in Bow, Washington. She has been urging local agencies to evaluate what she describes as extensive safety risks associated with oil-by-rail transport.

“I am acutely aware of not only the richness of the environment we are blessed with, but also of its vulnerability,” she wrote in a scoping comment to Shell.

She is concerned with the risks associated with a large scale explosion, fire or spill, as well as less obvious effects. Traffic delays impact timely transportation for emergency medical services. She cited the World Health Organization in outlining the negative impacts sustained rail noise can have on cognitive performance in children. She also pointed to studies showing the dangers of inhaling diesel particulates and other emissions, which she said can contribute to lung damage and serious respiratory risks.

According to Ecology, 71 crude oil rail cars passed through Whatcom County each day in 2014, which was the lowest in any county that saw oil-by-rail movement on their railroads. Over 120 rail cars passed through Skagit County each day.

Whatcom and Skagit Counties are representative theatres for the oil-by-rail debate occurring at local, state and federal levels nationwide. This fight is fueled by the proximity of refineries at Cherry Point and Anacortes, the low cost of moving oil across Washington, and the hundreds of coastal towns and cities along their route.

Critical decisions made about the future of oil transit in the state are often made at the local level. The Whatcom County Council, a group of seven Whatcom County residents who represent just over 200,000 people, chose to enact a six-month hold on any new transportation of unrefined oil-by-rail through Cherry Point. This was largely due to the overwhelming public effort made by Ury’s group, RE Sources, and other local groups, like Stand Up To Oil and Evergreen Islands.

At a larger scale, Ecology is cracking down on oil safety, too. The state is the first in the country to implement state-regulated rules surrounding oil safety and preparedness.

Smoke billows from the Phillips 66 oil refinery in Ferndale, Washington. This is one of the several refineries in Whatcom County.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed off on five new rules in 2015. The rules require annual safety demonstrations from all companies shipping oil in Washington state, and provide grants to communities without access to emergency services.

“Really what we’re doing here is trying to bring the same level of standard to the inland side of our state where the railroads are,” said Lisa Copeland, the oil spills communications coordinator for Ecology.

Washington’s stringent oil-by-vessel laws have helped to secure the record for the lowest spill rate volume in the nation. When oil trains came to the state in 2012, officials worked to mediate the impacts this new movement could have.

Ecology doesn’t have the authority to ban oil trains, Copeland said. Instead, it aims to decrease the risks associated with oil movement in the state, she said.

“All oil spills cause damage to the environment. Whether it’s hundreds and thousands of gallons or a couple teaspoons that drop into a lake, it’s all damaging,” Copeland said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure the environment is protected.”