Train crash hits close to home

The devastating train derailment and fire that destroyed the center of a small town in Quebec early Saturday may hit very close to home for Harborites, as three proposals to ship crude oil by rail through the Port of Grays Harbor continue to work their way through the regulatory process.

Port Executive Director Gary Nelson said he and the commissioners will be monitoring the investigation into the 73-car train’s derailment, but declined to comment on any potential impacts on the projects or the Port’s support of them until more facts were available.

At about 1:15 Saturday morning, a train operated by short-line carrier Montreal Maine & Atlantic carrying about 2.1 million gallons of crude oil sped down a hill nearly seven miles where it derailed in the heart of Lac-Megantic, a town of about 6,000.

At least 13 people were killed and about 50 remained missing as of Monday night. About 2,000 were evacuated after fires from the damaged train destroyed dozens of buildings and left some people literally running for their lives.

“I’ve never seen a train moving so fast in my life, and I saw flames,” said Maude Verrault, a waitress at a downtown cafe who was outside smoking when she spotted the blazing train barreling toward her, she told the Associated Press. “… Then someone screamed ‘the train is going to derail!’ and that’s when I ran.” She said she felt the heat scorch her back as she ran from the explosion, but was too terrified to look back.

Current Port tenants Westway Terminals and Imperium Renewables already cleared one hurdle in the permitting process when the state Department of Ecology and the City of Hoquiam determined that steps the companies say they would take to minimize their environmental impacts are enough to avoid an in-depth and costly Environmental Impact Statement.

Westway has also been granted a shorelines permit from Hoquiam, but both the permit and the environmental finding are being contested.

Robbie Johnson, Westway’s vice-president of operations and engineering, called the Quebec derailment “a tragic situation.”

Asked about potential impacts to Westway’s crude oil project, Johnson said, “I’m not sure if or how much that will affect us, because we’ve got a very, very strong safety record that we’re very proud of. … We’re part of the Grays Harbor community, and we’re certainly going to take all the steps necessary to make sure our neighbors remain safe.”

Calls to representatives of Imperium were not returned as of press time.

The trains that would carry the oil through Grays Harbor to the Port are operated by Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad. The railroad did not return The Daily World’s phone calls Monday.

The short line railroad was formerly owned by RailAmerica, but RailAmerica was recently purchased by Genesee & Wyoming Inc.

The Quinault Indian Nation and a coalition composed of Friends of Grays Harbor, the Grays Harbor Audubon Society, Citizens for a Clean Harbor, the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club, have been filed appeals over both companies’ projects.

Arthur Grunbaum of Friends of Grays Harbor said he hoped something positive could come from the tragecy in Quebec.

“It’s a pretty big and disastrous thing that happened. It kind of points out that no matter how good you think you are with your protections and your maintenance and all of these different things, there is going to be an error. And it’s the consequence of the error that concerns us. We can see something like that happening here on the Harbor — if it were to happen in Elma it would wipe out all of Elma, because the mile-and-half trains completely bisect Elma,” Grunbaum said.

Human error and equipment failures can happen anywhere, he added, and the worst-case scenario should be carefully considered before committing to crude-oil shipping.

“It’s a tragedy, but hopefully it will enlighten some people about the dangers about what’s proposed for the Harbor. And imagine what would happen if some sort of rail accident happened, and they happen all the time.”

Charla Skaggs, a representative of U.S. Development Group, the third company hoping to ship crude oil through the Port, noted the Quebec derailment happened on regular track, not in a terminal where the shipping companies would be working with it. Still, she said, companies who handle oil in any capacity will likely be looking for something to learn and improve from.

“I think once the details are known, once the cause is known, I think the entire industry will be looking at that and saying ‘how can we prevent this from ever happening again,’ ” Skaggs said.

“It’s a terrible situation, I’ve been monitoring it for many days,” she added. “It’s really just an awful situation for that community.”

The technical details of the specific cars in Quebec weren’t widely known as of Monday, but Skaggs noted newer rail cars designed to ship oil have numerous safety mechanisms in addition to safety protocols on rail lines and at shipping terminals.

“I think we have always wanted the community to be well informed at U.S. Development facilities and (about) the policies that are in place at all of our terminals, and are happy to answer questions about how things are handled,” she said.

Skaggs recommended visiting for specific details of the crude-by-rail projects.

U.S. Development’s proposal estimates its facility would handle about 2.1 million gallons of crude oil per day with one 120-car shipment every two days. Westway estimates it would receive 403.2 million gallons of oil per year, or the equivalent of two 120-car trains every three days, one loaded, one empty. Imperium estimates two 105-car trains per day, one loaded, one empty.

Port Commission President Chuck Caldwell, who has been supportive of the oil terminal projects, declined to comment until more information is available, but his opponent in the upcoming election, Ron Figlar-Barnes, has cited crude-by-rail as one of his primary issues. “If something like that would happen to Elma, there’s a residential community right where that train goes through, there’s an elementary school associated with that railroad track, it would absolutely destroy the city,” Figlar-Barnes said.

He also noted the track runs through Montesano, Hoquiam and Aberdeen.

“I hate this. This is wrong for Grays Harbor, and it’s wrong for the communities. The commissioners, they need to take a hard look at this,” Figlar-Barnes said. “This is a dying industry. It’s not one that’s going to be sustainable. We need to look at other things, other ways for the community to make money and survive. This is wrong.”

He called readiness plans from oil companies “a bunch of bunk.”

“The only thing they’ve been able to do is clean up afterwards. They can’t control it,” he said. “Accidents happen. Be it mechanical, human error, a tsunami or something like that — accidents happen.”