Protesting a disaster before it happens

Brian Huseby reports on a protest of tribal, labor, and community groups against the reckless increase in rail transports of crude oil across Washington state.

Raging Grannies camped out in front of the hearings in Olympia on crude oil trainsRaging Grannies camped out in front of the hearings in Olympia on crude oil trains

HUNDREDS TURNED out to Olympia, Wash., on October 30 to protest the rapidly increasing amounts of oil that are transported by rail through the state each day.

"We will not get on board," said Ed Johnstone, fisheries policy spokesperson for the Quinault Tribal Nation. "We are opposed to oil by rail...Not now. Not ever!"

As oil production declines in Alaska and increases in North Dakota, the use of rail to transport oil through the Pacific Northwest has jumped. It is estimated that 2.8 billion gallons of crude oil will pass through Washington state by the end of this year--compared to nearly zero three years ago.

The new Bakken crude oil being brought into the region is known to be especially dangerous. There have been numerous explosions of trains carrying Bakken crude in the past two years. The most serious occurred during a derailment in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July of last year, resulting in the loss of 47 lives.

Making matters worse, much of this oil is being transported in DOT-111 model tanker cars, which are particularly susceptible to explosions in case of derailment because of "thin metal skin and protruding valves lead to punctures when they derail," according to ForestEthics. In 1991 the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that DOT-111 cars were not safe to transport Bakken oil.

Currently, 19 trains per week pass through the state, but this is estimated to increase to 59 if all of the infrastructure proposals of the oil industry are implemented. Each oil train consists of 100 linked cars, increasing the possibility of a disastrous explosion.

The prospect of such a disaster has alarmed many residents of the state, including tribal, labor and community groups. To placate the growing opposition, Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who touts himself as a strong environmentalist, commissioned a study by the state Department of Ecology (DOE) on oil-spill risks and the state's ability to respond to spills on land and in waterways.

Inslee wants to guide public discussion to be about how the state can accommodate increased crude by rail transports. Instead, protesters are shifting the conversation to whether the state should stop the transports outright.

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THE SECOND day of public hearings for the first draft of the DOE report became a day of protest in Olympia. Early in the day, several members of the "Ragin' Grannies," a group of older women known for their imaginative protests, chained themselves together and blocked the entry road to the DOE building for five hours.

That afternoon, protesters marched from a downtown park to the Red Lion Hotel where the hearing was to be held. Another rally was held at the entrance to the Red Lion for about an hour before the hearing room was opened. That rally demonstrated the diversity of groups opposed to oil train traffic. People from Idle No More Washington and other tribal groups spoke out as well as fire fighters and other labor organizations.

When the hearing room opened, it was packed with nearly 700 people, approximately 300 of whom signed up to speak. Testimony was finally concluded at 11:20 p.m. DOE had hoped to limit comments to the risk factors covered by the study, but most of the speakers demanded that no oil trains at all be allowed in the state (as well as coal trains for that matter.)

The DOE facilitator who ran the hearing allowed only hand signals and small signs to be held up in support of the speakers. No clapping or cheering was allowed. This was observed for the most part, but loud cheering and applause broke out when Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela concluded her remarks by exclaiming "We will not endanger our communities just to make more profits for big oil!"

Big Oil will continue to try to move its product by dangerous trains. The revisions to the DOE draft are due on December 1, and final report to the legislature is due on March 1, 2015, and legislative action is anticipated by March 15. Each step of the way, the oil companies and politicians should expect to encounter plenty of people determined to turn back their plans.