Coal and oil train forum touches nerve with local issues of safety, noise, and waterfront access

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Ross MacFarlane of Climate Solutions addresses a crowd of more than 75 citizens attending the forum.
Ross MacFarlane of Climate Solutions addresses a crowd of more than 75 citizens attending the forum.

An enthusiastic crowd of more than 75 people skipped Edmonds’ Third Thursday Art + Wine walk, choosing instead to jam the Edmonds Library Plaza Room and participate in the latest forum focusing on coal and oil traffic through Edmonds.

Sponsored by Citizens Against Coal and Oil Trains and moderated by Sustainable Edmonds’ Todd Cloutier, the forum drew a decidedly partisan crowd, and featured remarks by Ross MacFarlane of Climate Solutions, Fire District 1 Asst. Chief Alan Reading, 21st District State Senator Marko Liias (D), and the Sierra Club’s Robin Everett.

While the forum touched on a wide range of global and local issues, it was the local concerns including noise, tank car safety, coal dust and vibration from passing trains that drew the most interest from the audience.

Nathan Proudfoot of Edmonds asks a question of the panel as Edmonds City Councilmember Lora Petso looks on.
Nathan Proudfoot of Edmonds asks a question of the panel as Edmonds City Councilmember Lora Petso looks on.

MacFarlane led off the formal presentation with a review of the global environmental impacts of fossil fuel use, and his contention that at least in the case of coal, worldwide use is actually dropping and “there’s too much coal chasing too little demand.” He characterized the significant investments by the railroads and other energy interests in supplying and transporting coal as “stranded assets” for which these interests want the public to pay.

He was followed by Fire District 1 Asst. Chief Brad Reading, who got right to heart of two of Edmonds’ biggest concerns, waterfront access and the potential for the kind of catastrophic oil train explosions that have happened in other areas. Saying that “there’s no good way to the other side of the tracks,” Reading painted a grim picture of what might happen in our area in the event of a similar derailment.

“While these tragedies are admittedly rare, when they do happen they are catastrophic and would quickly overwhelm any efforts on our part to control the situation,” he said. “If a fire were to involve several tank cars, we simply would not be able to put it out. The best way to address this is prevention — we need to keep it from happening in the first place.”

Next up was 21st Legislative District State Senator Marko Liias (D), who provided a report on efforts in the state legislature to impose regulations on coal and oil trains to help improve safety and accountability. He highlighted the efforts by him and others in the Senate and House to promulgate legislation to control and regulate crude oil transport by rail, including imposing taxes on oil that is transported this way. “Right now oil that comes into Washington by tanker or pipelines is taxed,” he said. “I’d like to see these taxes extended to oil that comes into our state by rail, and then use that revenue to help cover the costs of things like emergency response and safety inspections.”

The forum panel comprised (L to R) Ross MacFarlane of Climate Solutions, Fire District 1 Asst. Chief Alan Reading, 21st District State Senator Marko Liias (D), and Robin Everett of the Sierra Club.
The forum panel comprised (L to R) Ross MacFarlane of Climate Solutions, Fire District 1 Asst. Chief Alan Reading, 21st District State Senator Marko Liias (D), and Robin Everett of the Sierra Club.

Last to speak was Robin Everett of The Sierra Club, who talked about the recent successes in slowing, delaying, and in some cases stopping the construction of new coal and oil terminals, refineries, and other facilities. She particularly praised the work of the tribes in successfully opposing recent projects in Anacortes.  She reminded the audience of several upcoming projects that the Sierra Club will actively oppose, and urged interested citizens to pitch in and help.

The question and answer session largely focused on local impacts, with spirited discussion on issues including the risk of catastrophic accidents, coal dust impacts, and train noise — especially train horns blowing at all hours of the day and night. One resident who lives on a slope adjacent to the tracks was particularly concerned about the long-term effects of vibration on slope stability.

One of the last comments came from Edmonds City Council president Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, who called the increasing train traffic that brings more and more hazardous materials through our community “a travesty” that needs to be addressed without delay.

– Story and photos by Larry Vogel

Edmonds City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas called the oil and coal train situation in Edmonds "a travesty" that needs to be addressed quickly.
Edmonds City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas called the oil and coal train situation in Edmonds “a travesty” that needs to be addressed quickly.

15 COMMENTS

  1. I really wish people could leave their politics at home (if there was really no demand for coal there wouldn’t be any business in moving it around) and focus on the only real issue here: derailed oil trains can and DO cause horrific fires. Such an event in Edmonds would be catastrophic. What’s the railroad doing to ensure safety?

    As for coal being dangerous in the amounts that would come off a load passing through town, I find that idea puzzling. Just a couple generations back it was being delivered door to door to heat people’s houses. People didn’t get sick from that, they got sick from mining it.

    • Please review the presentations that I linked to my comment below, as they address your assertion that the economic case must be good, or there would be no investment. The demand and price for coal in Asia has collapsed, and this has caused the coal companies that were so active in proposing these massive export terminals to now be valued at about 1% of their share value in 2011. The last few proposed terminals are last ditch efforts that actually don’t pencil out given the new coal prices and volumes going to China. I encourage to read up on what is happening in Australia and Indonesia, the two largest coal exporters to China, where communities built around export terminals are now suffering from the collapse. Resource extraction is the lowest of all economic activities, and the least reliable basis for an economy.

      Regarding coal dust, you are mostly correct. Coal dust here in Edmonds is not likely to significant degrade air quality due to the low concentrations once the trains get out this far. Small particulates from the extra diesel engines are a greater air pollution concern near the rails. Curiously, the biggest problem caused by coal dust is the loosening of the ballast under the rails, which leads to derailments. See the BNSF memo outlining this concern here:
      http://www.beyondtoxics.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/BNSF-Coal-Dust-FAQs.pdf

      I encourage you to do a web search for “coal train derailed”. Not all derailments make the news, but the number of derailments here in the U.S. alone will likely surprise you.

    • Politics are by definition not something left at home when discussing public concerns. Moreover, one’s convictions define one’s politics, and we do not leave our convictions at home when discussing something that effects us all as deeply as the coal and oil trains. How can you divorce politics and convictions from this issue?

    • John – This forum was sponsored by Citizens Against Coal and Oil Trains, and the information provided was from that perspective.

      If you’re looking for a similar forum that included the industry perspective as well as that of coal/oil train opponents, I refer you to My Edmonds News coverage of the August 2014 forum held at the Snohomish County Admin Building. Read our coverage here: http://myedmondsnews.com/2014/08/edmonds-train-crossing-situation-unacceptable-earling-tells-panel/, and see the complete video here: http://myedmondsnewstv.com/coal-oil-train-forum-edmonds-mayor-dave-earling/.

  2. Current lack of enforcement ignores growing threats of Bakken oil
    explosions so extensive and toxic, fire chiefs have testified that
    “even if we had an infinite amount of foam,” the fires and toxic
    emissions would continue until all fuel had been exhausted, killing
    people and destroying wide swaths of land and riverbanks as they
    burned. Railroads are making secret decisions and hiding documents to
    such an extent, the federal Department of Transportation says it’s
    “impossible to know” to what extent railroads have prioritized or
    ignored safety in choosing routes. Railroads have also lobbied against
    federal regulatory efforts aimed at retrofitting tank cars for greater
    safety. Congress and the White House, Homeland Security and the FRA
    need to address the danger of Bakken oil explosions before disaster strikes.

    That’s why I signed a petition to Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, which says:

    “It’s time the Federal Railroad Administration enforces existing law
    requiring regulation to preserve health and safety in communities
    adjacent to railroad traffic, particularly in metropolitan areas.

    Will you sign the petition too? Click here to add your name:

    http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/enforce-railroad-health?source=s.fwd&r_by=1718159

  3. Thank you to all who came out last night! You packed the place. Yes, there are plenty of details to debate related to coal, oil, and other rail traffic through Edmonds. We showed that last night with over 35 minutes of continuous questions for our four panel experts.

    For those unable to make it, I’ve posted the presentations online here: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0Byow5a1jrJySY19tb3hFaG15a3M&usp=sharing

    Stay in touch and we will let you know when the next opportunity arrives for us to make our voice heard at the next rail terminal hearing, or oil refinery hearing.

  4. Regarding our environment, one need only drive a few blocks to see that about half the vehicles (probably more if really counting) are suvs, trucks and HUGE vehicles. ….. gas hogs, polluters, etc. This issue isnt about “politics”. It is about each and every person taking responsibility for their carbon footprint and also expecting corporations to do the same. We are not living in the 1950s anymore and we need to correct the damage we have done by operating old school. We saw a woman in a grocery store berating a clerk because he handed her a plastic bag. This same woman went to her car which was a huge suv……My point is, is that everybody is a part of this equation and everybody needs to not dig their heads in the sand anymore.

    When you see crocusses blooming in autumn, clearly we have done something to our planet and need to reverse our direction now. I believe that the United States is the biggestright now the biggest perpetrator against the environment.

    Mr. Buffett could give a rats you know what about our environment. He only runs these trains to make HIS profits. I say how much does ONE individual need and at what cost to the collective. The coal spewing in the air in China floats right back here. Many thousands and thousands have died through the years from exposure to dirty, black, toxic coal! So yes, we arent living in the 1930s either!

    • For the record, the “crocus” one sees blooming this time of year, are not really crocus. They are Cochilcums but are commonly known as Autumn Crocus because they closely resemble “crocus”

      • The crocus we saw blooming through did not appear to be the rare autumn ones with the big flowers…………looked like the regular spring ones to us. These are not the only flowers we have seen bloom more than once, out of character and last year we saw the same with a number of flowers.

  5. If I remember correctly the United States was not party to the last big MANY NATION global summit on global warming. Something wrong with that.

  6. When I see Republican candidates for our nation’s highest office state actions we take in the U.S. will have no effect on the global pollution problem since other countries are the real offenders, I have to wonder who is advising them. Tere is correct: if each of us takes accountability for doing our part to reduce our carbon footprint (however small that may seem) the collective impact will be significant.

  7. has there been any discussion of train personnel liabilities???

    if/when there is a derailment with disastrous fires, etc…

    if the corporation directors and those at the top stood to be personally liable, along with their families, etc…

    also, yup, the tracks were here before any of us were born, but it was a different world, even a couple of decades ago

    perhaps it’s time to acknowledge, just because the tracks are there, it doesn’t give the train companies carte blanche (sp?) to have trains on them 24/7 366 days/year

    it’s not up to the cities and people that have been built up around the tracks to bend to the profits of the few that make the profits, and, of course those with train related jobs

  8. Just think about this. Much of the coal passing through Edmonds ends up in places like Beijing China. It is to dirty to meet E. P. A. standards so we ship it to China were it is killing untold numbers of people. This for profit and a few jobs. That’s all any of us should need to know. It’s much worse then what the tobacco industry did because the facts are evident from the get go.

  9. The debate seemed to have died away as fast as it was raised but the safety concerns remain. Due to the erosion over the winter which created vertical cliffs only a few feet from the tracks, this puts the trains at high risk of derailing in a residential area. This is most obvious in the Meadowdale area near Haines Wharf. Any derailment here will cause devastating harm to our waters and our residents. The wharf, which is already soaked with highly flammable chemicals, will make a derailment here that much more dangerous.

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