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Cities struggle to address oil trains without any authority

Depending on who you ask, oil trains fall somewhere between rolling time bombs with the potential to lay waste to our entire region and being just one more line item on an already long list of dangerous chemicals lumbering down the tracks toward economic prosperity and energy independence.

Still, many across the spectrum worry about the consequences of unprecedentedly long trains carrying exceptionally volatile Bakken oil on aging rail infrastructure through communities ill-equipped to handle a derailment of a train on its way to three proposed storage facilities for the Port of Grays Harbor.

While the city of Hoquiam, the Port of Grays Harbor and state and federal officials consider the impacts of the facilities, communities along the rail lines are trying to come to terms with the potential impacts and scrambling to make their voices heard.

Alison Heliburg is the government relations advocate of the Association of Washington Cities, a group that lobbies on behalf of Washington’s 281 cities.

She said it’s all a rehashing of conversations that happened over coal trains about two years ago. Then, just as now, officials and citizens worried about how increased rail traffic will impact emergency services, community quality of life, and the potentially environmental hazards of more and longer trains bisecting cities as they moved west. But at a projected 120 cars, or about 3,000 feet long, these trains are like none before.

“Some mayors were opposed to the (coal) projects, other mayors thought it was good for economic development,” she said. “..Then the oil train thing came and people started to worry more. It’s a different deal.”

Heliburg is part of a newly formed ad hoc committee working on a number of recommendations that will be presented to federal and state representatives. But even the representatives from cities across Washington that make up the committee have differing views on the trains; each city is impacted differently and often has differing political ideologies.

Related: Chicago wants tighter rules on crude oil trains

“There’s definitely competing interests between cites, and that’s the challenge,” Heliburg said.

The Aberdeen City Council recently passed a resolution in opposition to the oil trains. The Chehalis City Council passed one earlier this year, essentially saying the trains are out of their control but the city shouldn’t be held responsible for any cleanup in the event of an accident.

The Winlock City Council voted down a proposed resolution to oppose the oil trains, doing so, they said, because cities have no authority over railroads.

Despite cementing local opinion into code, the resolutions have no impact. Still, many at the city government level feel crude by rail demands urgency. Even down to the city council members, there’s little agreement over how to best get city’s voices heard.

Napavine councilor Bob Wheeler sits on the AWC committee. He said it’s a waste of time to try to block the trains, but working with groups like the AWC can make them safer for the cities they visit.

“It’s awfully hard to get anything out of the railroads, but if we can get a statewide thing and a congressman or two, we’d have a lot more power than a bunch of little cities passing resolutions,” he said.

His fellow Napavine city councilman Lionel Pinn couldn’t disagree more. He thinks resolutions and ordinances will put items into statute that will add to the pressure on railroad companies.

“I’m not saying you should go stand on the tracks, but these ad hoc committees aren’t going to do any good,” he said. “The real work is being done by people standing on the front lines and going to public hearings rather than attending a sit down meeting with a bunch of suits.”

Every city councilor from Centralia, Chehalis, Napavine, Winlock and the Lewis County commissioners were invited to an Oct. 11 anti-crude-by-rail event at the Matrix Coffeehouse in Chehalis. All of them are listed as guests of honor on the back of the event flyer.

Wheeler was annoyed that organizers did this without asking him first and said he won’t be going. Pinn said he will, and looks forward to seeing which other officials attend.

Regardless of what happens, there or at the AWC committee meetings, these conversations aren’t going to end anytime soon, nor are the train cars.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with leaders from the Department of Transportation and they said this is a smaller piece of the larger energy revolution happening in the United States,” Heliburg said. “What you’re seeing is the real change in how freight is moving and the projections is it’s going to increase even more.” ___

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