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Oil train derails near Bellingham

An oil train derailed and caught fire near Custer, Washington, on Tuesday, December 22, 2020 (photo below). Read story here.

Various news outlets said the derailment occurred near where two people were arrested last month for tampering with railroad signals (see, e.g., story here), but authorities haven’t determined a cause and there’s no evidence at this point of sabotage.

It’s also unclear where the oil came from, but the wreck occurred near refineries that are a destination for Bakken crude oil from the Dakotas (see previous articles on this blog about explosive growth of oil train traffic here and here).

The oil trains are controversial, not only because of oil’s impact on climate change, but more immediate safety concerns. The only rail route to 4 of the 5 oil refineries in Washington State passes through downtown Seattle and residential neighborhoods.

n 2015, the Washington legislature passed an oil train safety bill that drew criticism from northern plains oil-producing states, including the Dakotas and Montana that included vapor pressure limits that Bakken oil couldn’t meet (see story here). This week’s Custer incident, whatever its cause, is bound to bring renewed scrutiny to these oil trains.

Until recently, those refineries — all built in the 1950s — processed Alaska crude oil brought in by ship and unloaded at piers, and essentially all of the gasoline for the Pacific Northwest came from that source. While marine oil spills in Puget Sound were always a concern, turning rails into oil pipelines has created an entirely different set of hazards and challenges. You can view a Washington Department of Ecology slideshow presentation about oil trains here.

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