Aberdeen Fire Chief Tom Hubbard says he’s worried about emergency access to Olympic Gateway Mall should crude by rail be brought to the Harbor with the potential of trains blocking access to paramedics and firefighters.
There’s even a potential for more shoppers at Olympic Gateway Mall next year with recent permit approvals for the Walmart expansion at the mall.
That combination of increased rail traffic and increased people could spell disaster, he says.
“This is our job to do target hazard assessments and what-ifs,” Hubbard said.
City and Port officials say they’re trying to find a permanent solution, acknowledging there is a problem that needs to be fixed. There’s already been several meetings between all of the entities, brainstorming on possible solutions.
Deputy Port Director Leonard Barnes says there are really only three solutions — move the rail line, build a bridge of some sort to get the rail over the road, or to somehow get cars under the existing rail line. Nothing has been settled on yet, although a lot of talk and reports have focused on elevating the tracks.
At this point, Hubbard says the Aberdeen Fire Department is able to fit a Ford Excursion command vehicle under nearby railroad trestles along the Wishkah River to access the Walmart parking lot if an emergency should arise. Hubbard said they’ve tried to fit an ambulance under the trestle, but it won’t fit.
That means that, in a worst case scenario, the fire department could load aid gear in the back of its command vehicle, respond to a crisis, get the patient needing help and transport them to the ambulance and, from there, to Community Hospital.
Hubbard admits the situation is definitely not ideal.
“We don’t want to publicize the exact place because we don’t want a parade of cars going through when the train is blocking the exits, but it is possible,” Hubbard said.
He also notes it is impossible to get a fire truck into the Gateway Mall, much less the ladder truck necessary to fight a fire at TOP Foods or Walmart, if the rail traffic is blocked.
“My biggest fear is there will be a fire and we can’t get to it,” Hubbard said. “My fear is there will be a child backed over and we can’t get in there.”
Hubbard said he’s been to some railroad classes and learned that if the rail cars stop and then the air brakes are released, all of the cars will suddenly jolt and move.
“No matter what, my guys will want to be there to help and if someone is there and has a heart attack, they grab their gear and start crawling under a train and then they get hurt,” Hubbard said.
Walmart recently received permit approvals to begin its expansion project. The store is adding a full-scale grocery with a bakery and other amenities. Part of the conditions of approval is that Walmart had to provide access for emergency personnel under a nearby railroad trestle in case the front is blocked in by a train.
However, Walmart was not mandated to do any improvements to ensure an ambulance could get under the railroad trestle.
“We weren’t requiring it because it wasn’t a permanent solution, just an emergency one,” Aberdeen Community Development Director Lisa Scott said.
Why not? Couldn’t Walmart have afforded to make the fix?
“Hindsight is we didn’t think about that,” Scott said. “It was never a requirement because we knew it wasn’t a permanent solution. That was just to get someone in on an emergency basis, when we knew we had to find a permanent fix.”
At this point, Scott said she has met with the Port, railroad officials and others at least twice to discuss options.
The permitting process is already underway on the Westway Terminals plan. Other plans are in the works for Imperium Renewables to expand and for Houston-based US Development, which is expected to be the largest potential so-called bulk liquid storage and shipment facility for crude oil.
“I don’t have a lot of details to offer about what the rail plan is or could be,” Barnes said. “We’re looking at access in and out of the East Aberdeen area and working with emergency access. We know how important that area is over there.”
“I think it will all be worked out,” Scott adds. “I think the solution will come with the increase of rail traffic and I think it will be a really good solution.”
Barnes says there’s no firm count on how much rail traffic could increase should plans for all three crude-by-rail projects move forward. But, he acknowledges, rail traffic should go up.
How many trains?
A citizen public records request made by Hoquiam advocate Dave Forbes turned up a document labeled “Freight Rail Plan 2013” between the Port of Grays Harbor and Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad. Port Attorney Art Blauvelt said the document was provided as part of Westway’s permitting process.
The document suggests that freight rail could increase from between three to seven trains per week, assuming trains at 100 to 120 cars, but is quick to note the plan is, in general, for rail traffic along the corridor “and therefore is not cargo specific.”
The environmental review for Westway Terminals alone, however, found that “two additional unit trains shall transit through the Aberdeen/Hoquiam area (one inbound, one outbound) every three days.”
A commulative look at the rail traffic has not yet been released. The permitting process calls for a “Rail Transportation Impact Analysis,” but the city of Hoquiam’s tentative permitting decision already states that the trains generated by Westway Terminals are “not expected to significantly impact traffic patterns at the entrances to the Olympic Gateway shopping area and Port Industrial Road.” The analysis is supposed to be completed and evidence of fixes made before a certificate of occupancy is issued for the project, however. And public comment is still being solicited on the plan.
Infrastructure enhancements identified in the Port plan include a new 8,200-foot siding between Aberdeen and Elma to help reduce rail traffic in East County, 1,800 feet of new track in Hoquiam, rehabilitation of 1,800 feet of existing siding at the Port of Grays Harbor and construction of 1,500 feet of rail extension at Blakeslee Junction at Centralia “to enhance interchange capacity for unit trains.” The document also notes that increasing freight rail movement above seven trains a week would mean even more siding capacity in the Elma and Centralia areas.
“In addition, we propose improvements made to the Gateway Mall exits/entrances, which should include, but not be limited to, a grade separation,” the letter states. A grade separation would allow trains to go up and over the existing area at Olympic Gateway Mall, although no firm details are included in the letter.
“I think going up and over the Gateway Mall, just by doing a slow gradient of 1 percent at the entrance, could work really well,” Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson said. “I’m really encouraged that things are moving in the right direction here.”
“The intent of grade separation would be to alleviate auto traffic congestion at the Mall during train movements,” the plan states. “It will be essential for local business, Puget Sound & Pacific Railroad, Port, City and State agencies to cooperatively design and find funding to improve public safety and improve traffic flows.”
Can more be done?
Forbes says he’s disappointed that more has not been done to figure out the exact amount of rail traffic that could be moving into the Harbor.
In a letter to the Port of Grays Harbor, Forbes says the documents provided as part of the permitting process are “very vague and do not address any of the issues connected with rail traffic when all of these crude petroleum terminals are sited and what will be done to alleviate the bottlenecks in East Aberdeen.”
“The extra rail traffic will impact all of the citizens and all of the tourists that are using our highways,” Forbes says. “If the rail traffic is not regulated and controlled, the impact on our local economy will not be good.”
At least one good thing has come about from the increased rail traffic. Last year, the railroad installed a sideline between the Elma and Oakville areas along Highway 12 toward Chehalis and the Port of Grays Harbor also increased rail capacity on its property. Other improvements have also been made along the tracks, although a long-promised electronic sign on the highway in front of Olympic Gateway Mall telling residents when a train is supposed to arrive next so the public can make a determination on whether to park at the mall was never installed.
Simpson said the electronic sign never developed because the railroad ownership changed hands and more concentration has been made on a permanent solution.
Scott notes that the wait time for residents stuck in the parking lot has been reduced from about an hour down to about 15 minutes.
“I know that for a fact because I’ve been there waiting for it to move,” she said.
But, Hubbard counters, 15 minutes is all it takes for a building to burn down or someone to die from a heart attack.