WIRT Newsletter: Recent Idaho & Montana Oil & Coal Train Issues


Bakken shale oil trains in northern Idaho travel beside the Kootenai River, through downtown Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint, over and along Lake Pend Oreille, and adjacent to U.S. Highway 95, before heading west into Washington.  Within the nexus of Panhandle tracks carrying greater numbers of dangerous trains every month across crumbling bridges and the lake, residents truly wish to protect their lands, waters, and the future of their children and grandchildren.  They understand the toxic and transient nature of unsustainable fossil fuels among the life of this Earth, and some have been boycotting them at every opportunity for decades.  One derailment on a bridge or over the regional aquifer would ruin the drinking water of thousands of people.  Are the profits of Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), Montana Rail Link (MRL), and Union Pacific (UP) railroads so imperative that they would chance derailments and bridge collapses near rivers and lakes? [1]  As oil and gas companies scrape the bottom of the easily recoverable barrel to extract the largest possible revenues, they obviously are evading the burdensome infrastructure and operating costs associated with preliminary processing of tar sands and fracked crude.  Without these adequate precautions, Bakken crude oil contains extremely volatile constituents that ignite too readily to be safely transported in bulk.  But North Dakota regulators have only considered or required that crude be conditioned, instead of mandating the more thorough and expensive stabilization procedures and equipment that separate and remove volatile compounds prior to shipment, but that the oil industry has been resisting for years.

Through combinations of these factors, governments and oil and railroad corporations ensure that American citizens passively and endlessly bear (but not accept!) the physical and fiscal risks and costs of oil trains, while these industries and their pet politicians take all the profits.  Flammable oil and dusty coal are transported and stored on a regular basis within some of the largest population centers in U.S., mostly located around railroads.  A leak or spill of volatile Bakken oil constituents from a transfer pipe or railroad tank car could ignite and set the heavier compounds on fire and start an uncontrollable, days-long conflagration that no municipality has the experience or the gear to combat.  Are existing north Idaho politicians and environmental groups determined to safeguard local communities by insisting on prohibition of crude oil train shipments with highly volatile constituents?  The majority of conservation organizations advocate overdue removal from nationwide tracks of aging Department of Transportation (DOT)-111 tank cars – the “riskiest models on the rails for accidents and oil spills” – as demonstrated by a November 2014 trip to Washington, D.C. by Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper executive director Shannon Williamson and allied colleagues [2].  They also petitioned for other more rigorous oil train regulations during rulemaking sessions at the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In early December 2014, the public interest environmental law organization Earthjustice, “on behalf of Sierra Club and ForestEthics, challenged the Department of Transportation’s denial in November of the groups’ petition for an immediate ban on the most hazardous DOT-111 rail tank cars carrying explosive Bakken crude oil” [3].  The legal action attests that this type of car, prone to punctures, spills, and fires during train accidents, represents two of every three tankers transporting oil throughout the U.S.  Asserting that it has sufficiently implemented measures to respond to the imminent hazards posed by these rail cars, by only issuing a safety advisory, the Department of Transportation faces growing legal opposition demanding further actions to protect communities susceptible to “bomb train” derailments, leaks, and explosions.

Lives will remain vulnerable until outspoken opponents of oil, coal, and tar sands together raise escalating, cooperating resistance to their transport, in any form or manner, past their homes and businesses.  The inherent dangers of Northwest fossil fuel passage persist, as apparent in the big rock slide that closed a main BNSF rail line in north Idaho, connecting Montana to Washington, and naturally shut down oil and coal trains for a couple days in late November 2014 [4].  Perhaps nature was sending a warning about not just these shipments but about an influx of Canada Pacific freight and tank cars (hauling tar sands oil?) recently seen by Sandpoint residents on local railroad stretches [5].  June 2014 protesters of four of five Montana megaload assembly plants also noticed some of these cars on the Montana High Line east of Glacier National Park, likely utilizing one of only a few international rail entrances into Idaho and Montana.

Upcoming Oil & Coal Train Challenges

The Sandpoint, Idaho area already suffers from both transient and stationary trains fully loaded with hazardous cargo like coal, oil, and tar sands.  Union Pacific has proposed closing the street at Eastgate Crossing, between Idaho Highway 200 and the Bonner Mall, “a highly utilized access point between the commercial and residential areas of Ponderay [6, 7].  While this maneuver may increase public safety, it would prolong response times of ambulance and fire emergency services by several critical minutes.  Concerned citizens and local businesses impacted by diminished highway access and storefront visibility distrust further division of the two sides of Ponderay and reduced public safety from Union Pacific’s subsequent “ability to stack trains…lingering in town while carrying possibly harmful or flammable cargo” [6]. Continue reading

The Numbers on C-3

Kas Dumroese, Moscow

The Moscow-Pullman Daily News 1/14/15

Just because everyone wants an improved U.S. Highway 95 Thorncreek to Moscow doesn’t justify ignoring law, especially by the government.  We still drive on old U.S. 95 because the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) ignored law concerning selection of E-2, which required an extensive, expensive, and time-consuming Environmental Impact Statement.  Instead, we could be celebrating a decade of driving on an equally well-designed, safe C-3 that uses more of the existing U.S. 95 footprint than E-2 would on the flank of Paradise Ridge.

E-2 is touted by its proponents as having less impact on farming, and is cheaper, shorter, and safer than C-3.  What does ITD’s Draft EIS say?  Compared to C-3, E-2 converts 55 percent more total land, 100 percent more prime farm land, and 36 percent more farmland of state importance (Table 42, pages 147-148).  It also removes 34 percent more land from the Latah County tax base, through new right-of-way acquisitions.  E-2 would cost $4 million more to construct than C-3 (page 11).  For the nearly six miles of new alignment with either alternative, C-3 would be a whopping 475 feet longer than E-2 (Table 52, page 174).  Using ITD’s data (Safety Technical Report Appendix D and page 174) and doing some simple calculations, the chance of safely traversing the “least safe” C-3 route is 99.99951 percent per trip, and it skyrockets to 99.99966 percent if you travel on the “safest” route, E-2.  And your chance of an accident at any access/entry point along E-2 (0.0022 percent) is actually double that for C-3 (0.0011 percent).

If you think those differences in length and safety seem tiny, you might be surprised to hear that ITD agrees with you (page 204): “the travel times and safety between Action Alternatives [C-3 and E-2] do not differ substantially.”