Dr. StrangeWeather, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb-Train

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 Cascade Mountains. The abnormal heat, combined with the drought now covering 80% of Oregon, has actually raised temperatures in the Willamette River above 70 degrees, recently killing chinook salmon as they made their way up-stream to spawn.

In March, tribal leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians converged in Portland to discuss this ongoing phenomenon of strange weather, which they cannily dubbed “climate change”. These changes, they said, were related to a pattern of global warming, and were creating 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 hold sacred. Now the Affiliated Tribes are discussing plans for adaptation and mitigation, and asking how to undermine the root causes of climate change.

In addition to the sudden onset of strange weather, Portland has also 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% of the state’s population have passed resolutions that oppose oil trains. In Alberta 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 propose 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 6th, 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 that the train was safe. Later that night, while the engineer was asleep in a nearby hotel, the train rolled down-hill from where it was parked, hurtling toward the city. The impact of 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. When asked if the crew was adequate for the cargo the following week, 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 made the switch 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.

In March, a coalition of rail workers held a conference on rail safety in Olympia, Washington, where they taught 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 they are 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, and 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.

Tiny Crews on Long and Heavy Trains

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 14th an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing 8 passengers and sending over 200 people to the hospital. It was staffed by one person, and accelerated to over 100 miles per hour shortly before hitting a curve whose speed limit was 50.

On October 28th last year, a sleep-deprived engineer in the Bronx fell asleep at his controls, causing his one-crew train to hit a curve at 82 miles per hour when the speed limit was 30. The derailment killed four people and injured more than 70.

On July 24th, 2013 a single crew-member train derailed in Santiago, Spain, killing 79 people and injuring 139. The train was traveling at 100 miles per hour when it headed into a curve where the speed limit was 50.

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. According to rail workers, this is just part of the problem. Rapid attempts at cost-cutting, they say, have created both technological and human shortages, and when it comes to safety there is no question which one matters most.

“There is no technology available today that can ever safely replace a second crew member in the cab of the locomotive,“ says a statement from the BLET and SMART-TD rail unions after the Philadelphia derailment.

Prior to 1967, Washington state actually required 6 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 5 or 6 people across the country, but this was widdled down to two people by the 1990s – with just one conductor and one engineer. This 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 is already using 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 US Federal Rail Administration proposed a rule on two-person crews, but the Obama administration has so far declined to consider the proposal.

In addition to cutting crew sizes, the biggest rail companies have doubled train lengths since 2007, routinely moving trains a mile long or even greater. This decreases labor costs, but also weakens tracks and causes exceptional wear on rail infrastructure. Factoring in this extra length and tonnage, a two person crew today represents one-sixth the number of workers that was standard in the 1980s.

Despite running trains that have never been longer or heavier, with quantities of hazardous material that are totally unprecedented on our rail lines, the railroads insist that an individual worker’s behavior, and not the hazards they have built in to the system, are the main reason that accidents occur.

“The BNSF is not genuinely concerned about safety,” says Geoff Mirelowitz, a former BNSF employee. “It is concerned about legal and financial liability. Every oil train that derails, every rail worker who is hurt on the job is a potential liability to the company. They are on a massive public relations campaign to ‘prove’ that if anything does go wrong it is not the BNSF’s responsibility. They frequently claim the primary safety problem is ‘employee behavior’ in order to distract attention from the unsafe conditions and hazards that the BNSF itself is responsible for correcting.” Geoff was fired from BNSF three years ago, after working as a switchman for almost 18 years in Seattle. His entire three-person crew was fired shortly after they pressed safety complaints about switch maintenance with BNSF management. The crew has filed a Whistleblower complaint with OSHA, charging the company with a violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act. Although OSHA has agreed that their firing deserves an investigation, the crew is still waiting for it to begin.

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. According to Karmen Fore, Senior Transportation Policy Advisor for Governor Kate Brown, there were around 3,000 oil shipments by train in 2006, but 493,126 in 2014. In 2013 alone the railroads shipped over 11 billion gallons of crude oil, which has led to a commensurate rise in oil spills. Over a million gallons spilled in 2013 – more than the previous four decades combined, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2014 there were 141 spills reported – setting yet another record.

The US 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% 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 24th last year 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 September 2nd, 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 giant sign that read “Cut oil trains not conductors.”

After 8 hours on the tripod, Abby and four other people were arrested. They now have a trial set for October 19th. Activist groups from across the country are calling for a week of similar actions for an entire week starting on July 6th – the anniversary of the Lac Megantic disaster.

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….” Wallis was fired from BNSF after reporting an injury, but re-instated in 2014 after 6 years of litigation.

Will They Learn to Love the Bomb?

By 2014, even the oil industry realized they 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 worked to beef up their image, suggesting that they are responsible and workers are not. The safety language thus employed often distorts the real cause of accidents, leading some 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 State College, safety standards coming from the Washington state legislature shift the focus from accident prevention to “mitigation”, ignoring the call of the Washington Council of Fire fighters in 2014 to “halt the movement of this crude by rail” until “the determination that this crude by rail can be moved safely through our cities and rural areas”. For Leahy, the legislature intentionally ignored the question of prevention and instead said these trains can be safe enough under a standard of “best achievable protection”, which, in his words, “substitutes reason and caution for breathless rhetoric[,] and turns communities into sacrifice zones for the 1%.”

On May 1st, the Department of Transportation announced their own batch of new safety rules for oil trains. These rules were almost universally deemed a disappointment, and failed for a wide variety of reasons, including: the creation of more secrecy around oil train movement, failure to phase-out DOT-111’s (also known as “pepsi-cans on wheels”) until 2020, failure to address crew sizes, failure to address worker fatigue, and the creation of arbitrary speed limits with no discernable relation to previous oil train derailments.

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 required under federal law.

When asked if the Yakama believe the risks of oil trains can be mitigated, Chairman 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.

Why do the Umatilla have such intense concerns? “The main rail, operated by Union Pacific, goes within 300 yards of our central tribal housing area,” Sams said. “It also goes within feet of Meacham Creek – which we’ve spent millions of dollars to restore.” According to Sams, the trains also travel within feet of the Umatilla River, which had its salmon restored in the mid-90s after 40 years of restoration work. “This is not work we can stand to see undone,” Sams told me in a phone interview.

Given the scope and intensity of the criticisms that have been leveled against them, it does not seem premature to say that the new safety rules do not address the criticism of opponents, and are therefore functionally useless. Despite the work of the DOT, no one is loving the bomb train.

Towards a moratorium

In July of 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,” Litwak says, but “with our tiny staff, we need Oregon and Washington’s help, and we haven’t received it yet.”

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 why 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 to support eachother. One option was to ban fossil fuel shipments and instead build electrified passenger rail, providing the kind of inter-city rail service that once flourished in the US 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 one dollar each, and their corporate accounts were fined $5,000. Over the same period, intercity electric rail collapsed from some combination of criminal conspiracy and shifting public policy.

It isn’t clear yet whether electric rail could win broad public support, or even unite organized labor with environmentalists. But what is clear is that activists and labor are finally thinking big. And in the new regime of strange weather, big change is certainly coming.

Stephen Quirke is a contributing writer with Street Roots newspaper, and works with Portland Rising Tide. An earlier version of this article appeared in Street Roots.