Trial by Fire: Lessons Not Learned One Year after Lac-Megantic

By Terry WechslerOn Jul 02, 2014

Commentary on crude-by-rail proposals:

On July 7, 2013, 47 people died when a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and tanker cars exploded in the heart of the small town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Next week (July 7-11, 2014) rail communities throughout North America will commemorate the one-year anniversary of that tragedy and stand in solidarity with what has become a Sister City to us all. At the end of this article is a message from Lac-Megantic to her sisters.

In my article “Washington’s Crude Awakening” in the July issue of Whatcom Watch, I discuss the proposed crude by rail proposals in the Pacific Northwest and what they mean for Washington’s rail infrastructure and the safety of our towns and terrestrial and aquatic environments. Two of the refinery proposals, Tesoro Anacortes and BP Cherry Point, have completed their infrastructure. Phillips 66 anticipates completion by December 2014, and Shell Anacortes is in the permitting process.

If all area refinery crude-by-rail proposals were fully operational, 1.5 unit (fully-dedicated) crude trains would travel along the coast from Bow, up the coast, through Bellingham and Ferndale, bound for Cherry Point. Burlington and Mt. Vernon would experience 3.5 loaded trains per day. But if all of the crude-by-rail proposals proposed in Washington were approved, including new terminals, there could be 100 trains per week entering Washington passing through Spokane, bound for the Columbia River Valley moving toward proposed destinations.

The Skagit and Whatcom County refinery crude-by-rail proposals are but four of the now over 20 fossil fuel transportation proposals in the region that include coal, crude, and LPG. We are facing a perfect storm of corporate activity that will overwhelm infrastructure, threaten our container ports and aquaculture industries, and negatively impact our economy at a time when we should be investing in education and other identified priorities, but must shift funding to emergency response and cleanup functions that no industry is guaranteeing to indemnify.

Protection of our environment, economic viability of other industries, and our very lives would require significant policy shifts that no politician has yet expressed even an interest in tackling. The public is reduced to signing petitions, such as that from Forest Ethics, begging state officials to at least stop approving permits for proposals until we can fully assess risks and prepare for response. What no one is discussing is adequate mitigation measures, and shifting the costs associated with known risks to proponents of these activities in a way that would eliminate the need to litigate for decades after-the-fact in the event of a catastrophe as shippers, rail carriers, and destination facilities haggle over who bears what share of responsibility, and all blame the regulators. Not one city or county official in Whatcom County has spoken publicly about this issue.

For a full list of known actions around North America the week of July 7, click here. Below is a list of known activities in this region.

Clark County

Grays Harbor County

King County

Skagit County

Spokane County

Thurston County

Whatcom County


Message from the Citizens of Lac-Megantic:

“The people of Lac Megantic and its environs are well aware of the dangers of transporting North Dakota crude by rail. The tragedy that we have suffered is very well known.

“We strongly support the solidarity actions that will take place in many states in the United States and in Canadian provinces that will highlight the commemoration of the terrible tragedy that took place in Lac Megantic following the derailment of the MMA train 606 282.

“We hope that the communities that organize the resistance and the municipal councils of Vancouver, Spokane, Edmonds, Bellingham and other concerned cities will be understood and their fears be taken into consideration so that a moratorium will be imposed on such practices so that the health, well-being and security of the population and environment will be protected.”

Traduction by Dan Leahy.

About Terry Wechsler

Past Writers • Member since May 19, 2013

Comments by Readers

Terry Wechsler

Jul 05, 2014

Mitigation 1, discussed above:  Assign liability among shippers, carriers, and destination facilities and require them to indemnify the risks associated with their activities.
Mitigation 2:  Require degassing before shipment. Removal of natural gas liquids (NGLs) is costly, but that sounds like a personal problem.
Mitigation 3: Make BNSF apply the same safety measures to transport of hazardous materials it does to passenger. EX: The 48-Hour Rule.


John Servais

Jul 06, 2014

We as a community are perhaps more vulnerable to this sort of fiery accident than most places.  The railroad tracks along Chuckanut are some of the most intensely maintained in the nation.  They are subject to constant rock falls and other hazards.  BNSF runs a check car up the tracks several times a day - more often in the winter wet season when there are more rock falls.  A fiery accident along those 10 miles would terribly scar one of our natural local treasures. 

Also the tracks along Chuckanut and the Bellingham waterfront are full of curves, making for greater risk of derailments.  One of the reasons the long coal trains have a pusher diesel engine at the end is to prevent the heavy back cars from tumbling off the inside of a curve.  A fiery derailment along our Bellingham waterfront could be just what we see in this photo.

If the BNSF says this fear is unfounded, then let them set up insurance for full restitution plus punitive for every accident - with no cap at the top.  Let them bond that insurance so we know.  Let it be an iron clad legal process.  Of course they will not.  They know the risks.  They go through many towns and know some will be hit with accidents - most small but some large. 

Thanks Terry for the fine article.  We need to be strongly reminded of what our future may have for us if we lose the fight to stop the Bakken oil from rumbling through our town on trains.

More concerned citizens will hopefully get involved.  The article shows some ways to do so.


Tip Johnson

Jul 06, 2014

Why does tar sand oil tend to blow up?  Because they mix it with explosive volatile substances called diluents.

Why does Bakken Oil blow up?  Because it is super light, volatile and explosive enough to be used as diluent.

Would anyone permit you haul a mile long pipe bomb with three million gallons of explosives through the middle of town?  That’s only for a special kind of ‘person’.  Regular people are not even allowed to have firecrackers.  There is no bomb squad equipped to disarm these, much less control them after they ignite.  This means not only whole towns, but natural treasures like Chuckanut Mountain, Samish and Padilla Bays, etc., are completely at risk with no hope of intervention when an accident occurs.  But maybe it can’t happen here?

I guess that’s a cost of doing business.  Unfortunately, only the ‘persons’ benefit while the people pay.


Terry Wechsler

Jul 12, 2014

Wouldn’t you think folks living in Edgemoor, on Chuckanut, Eldridge Ave., etc., would be a bit more up in arms?

Fun new interactive map here to see if you’re in the blast radius:

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