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Originally published December 30, 2013 at 4:44 PM | Page modified December 31, 2013 at 11:25 AM

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Guest: Oil trains are the new coal trains

Another industry peddling products from the Jurassic era wants the try its luck in Washington, writes guest columnist Todd Paglia.


Special to The Times

Raw: Fiery Video of North Dakota derailment of train carrying crude oil

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MANY oppose a proposal to ship coal from the U.S. to Asia through Washington state. Now another industry peddling products from the Jurassic era wants to try its luck in Washington. Get ready for Big Oil.

The oil industry has been moving quickly in the shadows of the controversy around coal. Bakken shale oil and Canadian tar-sands crude are already being transported and refined in our state.

These crudes present unique risks: Communities such as Kalamazoo, Mich., and Mayflower, Ark., testify to the illnesses, and financial and environmental ruin that a tar-sands oil spill would cause.

Three years and $1 billion after a spill, the Kalamazoo River is not close to being cleaned up. In Mayflower, where tar-sands oil flowed through a suburban neighborhood, millions in fines have been proposed and nearly 20 lawsuits against Exxon are pending.

Neither the federal government nor the state of Washington is remotely prepared for what is already in our state, let alone what may be coming.

We are already in the midst of an experiment with Puget Sound. The little known Kinder Morgan pipeline that terminates in the Vancouver harbor has increased transport of tar sands, which gets put on tankers that deliver this particularly dirty crude to local refineries. The majority is shipped elsewhere. Puget Sound is just an exit ramp.

If tar-sands crude spills, it sinks. Cleanup ranges from difficult to nearly impossible. And what this would mean for local fishermen, crabbers, salmon and orcas, you can only guess.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline was bringing 20 to 30 tar-sands tankers per year through Puget Sound in the early 2000s. That has grown to more than 80 toxic tankers, and Kinder Morgan wants to increase this to more than 400 per year.

It is gross negligence by regulators, politicians and Gov. Jay Inslee to allow a single tanker in our state if it is full of a substance we cannot clean up.

Puget Sound is not the only major risk. Citizens have risen up across North America to oppose dangerous pipeline proposals.

As a result, the tar sands and Bakken industries are increasingly turning toward rail transport. A dozen rail proposals are in various stages of permitting on the West Coast. There are 34 such proposals in the U.S.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being thrown at developing oil-by-rail projects, despite the fact that these rail cars are unsafe. Many of them leak, and in derailments the design and the contents lead to tragic explosions.

In fact, the railroad industry itself just announced that these cars must be redesigned. The cars that transport oil through our communities are too dangerous to use. On Monday, a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in North Dakota. This summer, there have been three major oil-by-rail explosions — the deadliest was Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 47 people perished.

What about jobs? Documents recently obtained by Bloomberg indicate that the American Petroleum Institute is gearing up a campaign to eliminate the ban on raw crude exports that has been in place for 30 years, using WTO regulations to overturn our own domestic laws. Thus, much of what is aimed at us is both dangerous to our communities and Puget Sound, and is an export play to China — of crude and of jobs. This adds up to all risk and no reward for Washington.

All of this can be avoided if we take action now. Once people took a hard look at the coal proposal for Bellingham, they saw local health risks, few new jobs, Puget Sound threatened by coal freighters, U.S. natural resources shipped to China and climate pollution. When you consider what the oil industry is planning, you see the same things but worse.

Todd Paglia is executive director of ForestEthics, a nonprofit coalition with offices in Bellingham, Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco, Calif.




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