In the wake of two train derailments in as many weeks, at least one local leader is challenging others to be more vocal on the issue of crude by rail proposed on Grays Harbor.
“I don’t think we have been as vocal as maybe we should have been,” Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney said. “People evolve in their thinking over a period of time, but as you see what happens in other communities and what can happen here … I want to know specifically what they’re going to do when they come into my home town, what they’re going to do to prevent that kind of thing.”
“There’s this perception that we can stop things, or we can modify it, and I don’t know that we really can,” Durney added. “Elected officials need to stand up and express concern and steer things toward resolution. The talking is over.”
In the most recent local derailment, a train passing in front of Walmart in Aberdeen derailed late Friday night, leaving seven cars blocking an entrance to the store and knocking the track out of commission until Thursday, according to Genesee & Wyoming Director of Corporate Communications Michael Williams.
“Repairs to the track are under way, and the line is currently expected to be back in service by Thursday afternoon,” he said. “The one blocked plaza entrance should likewise be open by then. We again apologize for any inconvenience to the public.”
Genesee & Wyoming is the parent company of Puget Sound & Pacific, the local short line rail operator.
The 101-car train came off the tracks at about 11:50 Friday night, PS&P General Manager Larry Sorensen said.
The train extended over the rail bridge near the Guest House Inn & Suites, blocking the Heron Street entrance. Traffic is still able to move in and out of the Olympic Gateway Mall through one of the other entrances and exits. The rail itself is bowed off the rail bridge behind the Guest House Inn & Suites along the Wishkah River.
The cars contain dried distillers grains headed to the Port of Grays Harbor. Sorensen said the train was traveling about 5 to 6 mph when it derailed. Damage to the cars was minimal, with a small amount of the grain spilled.
On April 29, five grain cars came off the tracks at South Washington Street just south of State Street. The railroad found that was caused by soft ground after heavy rains.
Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson said he still has confidence in Puget Sound & Pacific and hasn’t changed his position on potential crude oil shipping.
“I still believe in the railroad. Accidents do happen,” Simpson said Monday. “It’s just like flying on the airplane or driving down the street or walking down the street. Accidents happen. I know they know they’ve got some problems and they’re going to work on them and solve them. As far as the railroad, it’s been a great godsend to our community and brings us in a lot of revenue.”
On crude oil shipping proposed by Westway Terminals, Imperium Renewables and U.S. Development at the Port, Simpson said he’s waiting for the projects to work their way through permitting.
“I don’t think I’ve made a decision yet,” Simpson said. “It’s one of the things you still wonder about. As soon as all the reports are in I can come up with a decision.”
For Montesano Mayor Ken Estes, it’s a question of infrastructure, which is expensive to fix, whether it’s bad roads or bad track.
“I’m concerned about the safety, but I also understand why. They haven’t had the money to upgrade for years, and now they’ve got an application in for $12 million to do some repairs. So I anticipate things will get better,” Estes said. “The concern that we have is we don’t have a failure in our town. We’re for safety, we want them to prove they’re safe, and having an incident like that does not prove they’re safe or unsafe, it proves the infrastructure needs repair.”
“I’m not against railroads,” Estes added. “There’s big tanker trucks driving up and down the highway every day, and once in a while they run into something.”
Asked if there’s any cause for concern about local rail lines, Sorensen said Saturday, “No, the rail system in Puget Sound & Pacific is very safe and efficient. It’s just an unfortunate incident that occurred last evening and we’re making progress and steps to remove any issues going forward.”
“Given the PSAP’s safety record, the two derailments this week are obviously an aberration, but occurred at very low speeds with no injuries or damage to non-railroad property,” Williams said. “Causes are being investigated. Safety is always our top priority, and the railroad obviously takes these incidents very seriously.”
Williams reiterated the railroad’s position that the derailments have no bearing on oil shipping proposals.
“Upgrades would be made prior to proposed crude oil traffic, which also has different operating protocols,” he said. “But regardless of the commodity being transported, we do not consider two derailments in two weeks to be acceptable, however minor. The railroad is taking these incidents very seriously and conducting full investigations to help prevent any re-occurrence, as the industry always does. Rail is by far the safest means of ground-freight transportation, and safety is always the Puget Sound & Pacific’s top priority.”
Williams said if the cars that derailed had been oil cars, at that low speed, a spill or explosion would have been an unlikely outcome.
“This is also why we limit the speed of crude oil and other hazardous material unit trains to a maximum of 25 mph, which is considerably slower than the speeds at which recent crude oil derailments occurred on other railroads,” he said. “We also fully support the industry’s call for improved tank-car standards to enhance crude-by-rail safety and have committed to the U.S. Department of Transportation–Association of American Railroads voluntary agreement for enhanced safety procedures in handling crude oil trains.”
The current standard model for transporting crude oil, DOT-111 cars, have been under scrutiny in recent months after several explosive derailments of trains carrying Bakken crude oil. Newer model cars can be used on a voluntary basis.
Durney said he doesn’t doubt the railroad’s commitment to safety, but said he’s frustrated because ultimately, local governments have no authority over the rail lines that run through their towns.
“I think others share the frustration, because (railroad officials) always talk,” Durney said. “They have a real concern about safety, and I don’t question that at all. But they also are in a different world. What they can do with their property is dominant, and when it comes to their property we don’t have any regulatory authority at all.”
Durney said he still doesn’t have enough information about who would be responsible for what in a catastrophic emergency like an oil spill, and how the railroad would handle the dramatic increase in traffic.
“That’s an awful lot of cargo to be going through on one single line, and it’s pretty damn obvious if the lines are collapsing in damn soil, plus bridges and other things,” Durney said. “We need to be finding out from the railroad specifically how many millions of dollars they plan to spend to upgrade the rails, and also the construction of any oil tank cars. Right now it’s apparently a voluntary situation. It’s one of those things where the government needs to get testicles and make sure that this product is handled safely, and I’m not sure that it is right now.”
“These trains go through our communities, they go through Hoquiam, they go through Aberdeen, they go through Montesano and Elma and other rural areas where people live,” Durney continued. “People have every right in the world to be concerned and ask questions.”
The cause of the most recent derailment is still under investigation, but Williams said Monday they have ruled out operator error.