Is our weather getting funny?
Some bushes and flowers started to bloom near the end of January this year, and in the spring cherry blossoms were blooming weeks early. This capped a winter with extremely low snowfall in the mountains. The abnormal heat, plus the drought now covering 80 percent of the state, recently raised temperatures in the Willamette River above 70 degrees, killing chinook salmon as they made their way upstream to spawn.
In March, tribal leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians converged in Portland to discuss this ongoing phenomenon of climate change. These changes, they said, were related to a pattern of global warming, and were imposing unique hardship on Northwest tribes. In 2013, the ATNI also passed a resolution opposing all new fossil fuel proposals in the Northwest, citing harm to their treaty rights, cultural resources, and land they held sacred. Now the ATNI are discussing plans for adaptation and mitigation, as well as how to undermine the root sources of climate change.
In addition to the sudden onset of strange weather, Portland has seen the abrupt arrival of strange, mile-long trains loaded with crude oil — a very unusual sight in the Northwest until just two years ago. In the event of a derailment or crash, these trains are known to increase the temperature of surrounding areas by several hundred degrees – a strange weather event by any standard. This phenomenon has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains.”
While the danger of unplanned explosions is universally recognized, the risks of strange weather, and the planned explosions that take place in our internal combustion engines, are typically less appreciated. But the connections are becoming more obvious as the figure of the oil train valiantly pulls them together.
The sudden appearance of oil trains in the Northwest is one effect of the unprecedented crusade for oil extraction in North America – one that has produced a massive wave of opposition from residents and elected officials. In Washington State alone, nine cities representing 40 percent of the state’s population have passed resolutions that oppose oil trains. In Alberta, Canada, resistance to oil politics recently replaced a 44-year ruling party with socialists. And in Portland, anger against oil trains just smashed a city proposal to bring propane trains into the port.
In recent months rail workers have become increasingly vocal about the industry-wide safety problems that lead to fiery train accidents. They are also critical of the latest safety rules that allegedly protect the public from accidents. Rail Workers United, a coalition of rail workers and their unions, says that the best way to make trains safer is to increase worker control and self-management. They have proposed a host of reforms that profit-obsessed rail companies are not interested in hearing. For many rail-side communities there is a parallel interest in community control over the railroads: no fossil fuel trains are safe for them as long as trains derail and the climate unravels. Together, the two movements are calling for a better future for our railroads and our environment, and demanding more public influence to safeguard both.
Who’s in control? A retrospective.
On July 6, 2013, an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. After the accident the CEO of Rail World, Edward Burkhardt, told the media that he blamed the single employee his company had charged with moving 2 million gallons of crude oil. Armed with his very best talking points, Burkhardt told the media “I think he did something wrong. It’s hard to explain why someone didn’t do something.”
According to reports, the lead locomotive’s engine had problems in the past, but had been rushed back into circulation to save the company money on a standard repair. That engine caught fire the night before the disaster, and a local fire chief shut off the engine to stop fuel from flowing into the fire, inadvertently cutting the power to the train’s air brakes in the process. The company told the lone crew member not to come back to the site, and instead sent two workers who did not have experience with the braking system to confirm the train was safe. Later that night, while the engineer slept in a nearby hotel, the train rolled downhill from where it was parked, hurtling toward the city. The explosion incinerated half the city’s downtown, and contaminated most of the remaining buildings with 1.5 million gallons of crude oil.
For CEO Burkhardt, the explanation was simple – the engineer should have set more brakes that did not rely on the engine. The following week, when asked if the crew was adequate for the cargo, Burkhardt told a press conference that “one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction.” Under financial pressure, the company had switched to one-person crews three years before, replacing on-board conductors with remote control systems, and saving about $4.5 million every year. One month after the tragedy in Lac Megantic, the company filed for bankruptcy. Later that month Burkhardt expressed bewilderment when the police raided his corporate offices in Quebec.
Tiny crews on long and heavy trains
In March, a coalition of rail workers held a conference on rail safety in Olympia, Wash., informing audience members (including myself) that the average train operator today suffers from chronic exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Many workers in attendance attributed this to inaccurate train-lineups that do not allow for proper rest. Due to the uncertainty of when it is called to work, a train crew can be assigned to move a train full of hazardous materials without the chance to achieve needed rest from their last assignment. And with full knowledge they will be penalized for refusing a train, workers can go over 24 hours with no sleep by the time a shift ends. This exhaustion is a chronic background problem for rail workers, they said. When combined with the near-constant dismissal of safety hazards from their managers, workers are left with waning confidence in their own safety – a development that should raise red flags for rail-side communities.
According to Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary of Rail Workers United, “There’s no such thing as a safe one-person train.” Looking back over some recent derailments, the facts appear to back him up.
On May 14, an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight passengers and sending over 200 people to the hospital. It was staffed by one person.
On Oct. 28, a sleep-deprived engineer in the Bronx fell asleep at his controls, causing his one-crew train to derail, killing four people and injuring more than 70.
On July 24, 2013 a single-crew-member train derailed in Santiago, Spain, killing 79 people and injuring 139.
Public officials commenting on these incidents have often focused on the technology that could have stopped the trains remotely if installed – something U.S. railroads are already required to utilize under federal law, despite constant extensions on their legal deadlines. But according to rail workers, this is just part of the problem. Rapid attempts at cost-cutting, they say, have affected both technological and human shortages, but when it comes to safety there is no comparison between them.
“There is no technology available today that can ever safely replace a second crew member in the cab of the locomotive,“ say the BLET and SMART-TD rail unions.
Prior to 1967, Washington actually required six crew members on all trains. That law was repealed in 1967 after the rail corporations ran an initiative campaign that wiped it out. In the 1980s, the standard train crew was still five or six people across the country, but this was whittled to two people by the 1990s, and that has been the standard ever since. Now, through the use of new technology, the rail corporations have attempted to break down that number to one or even zero.
According to Herb Krohn, the Washington State Legislative Director for Smart UTU, the Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad already uses one-person crews to run trains loaded with hazardous materials – like the one that blew in Lac Megantic – including trains full of explosive gas. This line operates in Washington State between Centralia, Grays Harbor and Shelton.
In the aftermath of Lac Megantic, the Canadian Minister of Transport mandated two-person crews for trains carrying dangerous goods. In January the U.S. Federal Rail Administration proposed a rule on two-person crews, but the Obama administration has so far declined to consider the proposal. Since 2007 the biggest rail companies have doubled train lengths, moving trains a mile long or greater. Factoring in this extra length and tonnage, a two person crew today represents one-sixth the number of workers standard in the 1980s.
Pipelines on wheels, protests on stilts
By any metric, the volume of oil by rail has skyrocketed in recent years, with 1,000 of these trains now coming through the Columbia Gorge every year. This has caused a commensurate rise in oil spills. The year 2013 saw more oil spilled from trains than there had been in the previous four decades combined, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2014 the number of oil spills was even greater, totaling 141.
The U.S. Department of Transportation completed an analysis earlier this year predicting an average of 10 oil train derailments every year for the next 20 years. According to an analysis of industry data by OPB, hazardous material trains spill 0.01 percent of the time, so if the 1,000 oil trains coming through the Gorge are any representation of the larger problem, we could expect 10 of these to derail and spill each year. According to the public database at the FRA’s Office of Safety Analysis, 15 trains actually did derail and released hazardous materials in Multnomah County between 2011 and 2014.
Abby Brockway learned about these statistics first-hand after an incident in her own neighborhood. On July 24 last year (2014) a train loaded with 100 oil cars derailed in downtown Seattle. “The derailment under the Magnolia bridge was just a little too close to home – just a mile away from my daughter’s school,” Abby said in a phone interview. “I’ve spent years worrying about climate change, wondering why our leaders were doing nothing about it. After that day I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer – I needed to take action. ”
On Sept. 2, Abby and a group of activists with Rising Tide Seattle entered the Delta rail yard, not far from the derailment. There, Abby scaled an 18-foot tripod directly on top of the train tracks, and stayed there all day to talk to the media about the danger of oil trains, and to invite others to stand up for their communities. She waved two bright flags – one in each hand – while sporting a banner that read “Cut oil trains not conductors.”
Jen Wallis, a conductor with over 10 years of experience with the BNSF railroad, would later write “when my co-workers saw that tripod up in Everett with the sign that said ‘Cut oil trains, not conductors’, they were blown away.“ She added, “We understand completely now that we are fighting an industry that cares as much about us as they do the environment, which is not at all.”
After eight hours on the tripod, Abby and four other people were arrested, and their trial is set for Oct. 19. Activist groups from across the country are calling for a week of similar actions for an entire week starting on July 6, the anniversary of the Lac Megantic disaster.
By 2014, even the oil industry realized it had a serious PR problem. Last May BNSF Executive Chairman Matt Rose said, “Without focus on the elements of safety, the social license to haul crude by rail will disappear.” The CEO of Continental Resources, Harold Hamm, was even more blunt. “If we have one more big safety event,” he said, “they’re going to try and shut us down.”
The accidents, of course, did not stop, so the railroads have instead worked to beef up their public image to create the impression of responsibility, while pinning the blame on individual workers. The safety language thus employed often distorts the real cause of accidents, leading critics to argue that the latest batch of safety legislation is actually industry-supported, and designed to create the appearance of action while making us all more comfortable with oil trains. According to Dan Leahy, a former labor organizer who recently taught at Evergreen, the safety standard coming from Washington state “substitutes reason and caution for breathless rhetoric and turns communities into sacrifice zones for the 1 percent.”
On May 1, the Department of Transportation announced its own new batch of safety rules for oil trains. These rules were practically a universal disappointment and were criticized for a number of reasons, including: creating more secrecy on where oil trains move, failing to phase-out DOT-111’s (also known as “Pepsi-cans on wheels”) until 2020, failing to address crew sizes, ignoring worker fatigue, and setting arbitrary speed limits far above the speed of the average derailed oil train.
The Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes are all appealing the new regulations, and are asking the Department of Transportation to return to the consultation process.
When asked if the Yakama believes the risks of oil trains can be mitigated, Chair JoDe Goudy responded, “There is no word in our language for mitigation.” He went on to explain, “The Columbia Gorge contains ancestral use areas that are sacred and sensitive in nature. These are critical to the perpetuation of Yakama culture.”
Chuck Sams, director of communications for the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, says that his tribal government has very serious concerns about the risk of oil trains. “Any mass conflagration or derailment, whether on our reservation or on ceded territory, would have massive effects on our treaty rights and salmon,” he said.
For Sams, the new DOT rule that takes emergency information away from first responders and gives it to fusion centers run by the Department of Homeland Security is a key concern. “That will not make us safer. It will slow down our response time,” Sams explained.
Towards a moratorium
In July 2014, the Columbia Gorge Commission called for a moratorium on all fossil fuel movements in the Gorge, passing a resolution that asked the governors of Washington and Oregon to contact the commission so that the three entities could work together.
The Commission’s attorney, Jeffrey Litwak, says the call for a moratorium was an invitation to state regulators. As an inter-state compact, Litawk says, the Gorge Commission is uniquely positioned to provide strong regulations that withstand federal challenge, but needs help from the states. And Litwak should know. He wrote the book on inter-state compact law, and teaches about it at Lewis and Clarke law school. “We know we can pass strong regulations.” Lutwak says. “What we don’t know is what kind of regulations Oregon and Washington are looking for, and why they haven’t reached out to us so far.”
Such an alliance with state regulators would be a big help against the federal doctrine of pre-emption, which instructs local legislators not to interfere in “federal” matters that have already been touched upon in Congress – even if they can cause local oil spills. This doctrine is a primary reason the mayor of Washougal camped out along the railroad tracks to count trains this April, rather than pass a law demanding information from the rail companies.
Back in March, Rail Workers United came together with community members to envision what the future of railroads might be if they worked together. One option was to ban fossil fuel shipments, and replace them with electrified passenger rail, providing the kind of inter-city rail service that flourished in the U.S. before the ascendance of the automobile industry. In 1947, General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil were found guilty of criminally conspiring to dismantle streetcar lines in 45 cities between 1936 and 1946. For such crimes against the public interest, corporate officers were fined $1 each, and their corporate accounts were fined $5,000. Over the same period, inter-city electric rail collapsed from some combination of criminal conspiracy and shifting public policy.
It isn’t clear yet whether electric rail could ultimately win broad support, and unite labor and environmentalists. But what is clear is that activists and labor are finally thinking big, and under the new regime of strange weather, big change is coming.