What's up with that? Oil trains already passing through Vancouver?

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter



Two days ago, I was walking in the Officers Row area, and I was fairly startled to see parked along the railroad tracks a long string of black tanker cars with no visible markings or identifications. My only conclusion was oil train. But to the best of my knowledge, none of the proposed export terminals have obtained the permits needed to proceed. I live less than a half-mile from the BNSF Railway tracks. Why are these bombs on rails already in our neighborhoods? Or have they been and I just didn't notice?

— Mike in Vancouver Heights

The short answer is yes, Mike: Oil trains are already rolling through the Pacific Northwest. And that includes crude from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, the epicenter of a major oil boom in recent years. "We do run Bakken oil … on BNSF trackage," and it accounts for about one or two trains per day, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.

It's difficult, however, to say exactly what was in the train you saw. For privacy and security reasons, BNSF doesn't reveal specific route or commodity details, Melonas said. But we do know that the route that passes through the Columbia River Gorge and Vancouver is one of the region's busiest corridors. And though the proposed oil terminal in Vancouver isn't a done deal, there are oil refineries already operating in the state. In other words, Washington railroads are no strangers to hauling oil.

Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies say they want to build an oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver capable of handling as much as 380,000 barrels of crude per day. If that's approved, it's safe to say there will be quite a bit more oil coming through the city and region by rail.

Are they "bombs on rails"? Clearly, safety is a big concern when it comes to oil transport. A series of derailments and explosions since last year have only heightened those worries. The worst of those, in Quebec last July, killed 47 people and leveled part of the town of Lac-Mégantic.

Tesoro announced this month that it has begun replacing older cars in its railcar fleet with safer upgrades. The company says it plans to have its full fleet replaced by the middle of this year, before any construction would begin on a Vancouver terminal. The company will also have to convince state regulators — and ultimately Gov. Jay Inslee — that their plan passes muster before it gets a final green light.

Got a question about your neighborhood? We'll get it answered. Send "What's Up With That?" questions to neighbors@columbian.com.