WOW! On May 5, Governor Jay Inslee signed the clean energy bill, SB-5116, along with several other bills to help reduce global warming. After two years of frustrating defeats of carbon tax initiatives here, this was a huge thrill for many of us in 350 Spokane along with other environmental groups around the state and the country. We encouraged our legislators to take these bold, necessary actions. We urged them to stand up to the large fossil fuel corporations who are ignoring the damage that their fossil fuel economy is inflicting on our earth. Now our state is getting noticed for what has been accomplished here. I consider this success to be OUR success, a result of OUR actions letting our legislators know that many people here in Washington State want such essential change.
However, an environmental activist’s life is defined by ups and downs. Washington’s success in passing the clean energy bill overshadows the fact that our state remains a massive conduit for sending fossil fuels worldwide, endangering both Spokane and the wider world. This came to a focus this year in SB-5579, a bill to limit the volatility of crude oil passing through Spokane and across the state by rail.
For me, this fight began as an extension of our long battle against coal trains from Wyoming, which successfully prevented the construction of giant coal superports on the Northwest Coast to ship that coal to Asia. Just as we were winning that fight, we started seeing BNSF locomotives pulling long lines of black oil tankers, carrying explosive, unstable North Dakota oil to Puget Sound refineries. So began the “Stand Up to Oil” hearings, focused on stopping oil companies from building more refineries and ports on the coast of Washington, and on the dangers these “bomb trains” pose to communities along the tracks — communities like Spokane.
In July 2013 a similar oil train derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying 30 buildings. That was followed by more than a dozen other cases of derailed trains exploding around the U.S., making the dangers of unstable Bakken oil all too clear. In 2016 we even had a derailment and explosion in Mosier, Oregon that could have burned down the town but for the lucky fact that the famously brisk Columbia Gorge winds weren’t blowing that day. Still, the city’s water supply remained contaminated a year later.
That winter of 2016 I was eager to join a movement that would try to stop the transportation of this highly flammable Bakken Crude Oil. We have many reasons for concern about an oil train derailment and resulting explosion happening here in Spokane. Trains derail frequently. In Spokane the trains travel on raised tracks though the business center of our downtown making a derailment more devastating. They go past schools, hospitals, many residential neighborhoods, over our waterways and close enough to my home that I could be in the impact zone. Our aquifer travels under the Spokane River in somewhat the same area as the trains. This aquifer is our sole source of drinking water. If it were contaminated by oil flowing from an exploded oil tanker the population of Spokane would be hard pressed to find adequate alternatives. Our firefighters are concerned about the dangers of these oil trains. They know they don’t have the means to put out the fires that would result from a derailment and explosion because the flames burn at too high a temperature.
At one point there was talk of the Spokane City Council putting limits on these oil trains but folks around here, including the City Council lawyer, cautioned against it out of concern that the fossil fuel companies would sue the city. So that effort was dropped. Still, many of us were not satisfied to just do nothing. City Council member Breean Beggs brought his legal background to bear with his insight that because there were no specific Interstate Commerce laws that directly included regulations related to the volatility of crude oil, we could not be sued. So with his leadership, a city initiative called “Safer Spokane” was developed for the 2017 city election. It required that Bakken Crude Oil producers reduce the volatility of the oil before shipping it.
We had a lot of enthusiasm for our goal, worked hard and got more than enough signatures to get it onto the ballot as Proposition 2. The Spokane firefighters union supported the proposition. The Inlander carried a major story about the proposition and provided viewpoints of both those who were for it and those against. Our objectives made a lot of sense to us and to others who voted for the proposition and we were thinking that we might win. In the end, however, the fossil fuel companies had much more money to put into a disinformation campaign than we could counter. They convinced many voters to turn down Prop 2. None-the-less the initiative ended up getting over 40% of the vote, these votes mostly from areas closest to the train tracks. I felt glad that we had been able to inform many voters about the issues, but also discouraged that so much important effort had apparently failed.
Time of nail biting
My spirits lifted again when this issue got introduced into our 2019 State Legislature as SB-5579. Breean Beggs was again behind this effort and gave key testimony related to it. He was joined by Senator Andy Billig who sponsored it in the Senate. The other two District 3 Representatives, Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby carried the push for the bill in the House. Other state legislators also supported the bill because they, too, are concerned about train safety in their districts. So the bill passed both the Senate and the House and was on the governor’s desk waiting for his signature as the legislative session ended.
The bad news, however, was that an amendment was added to the bill that took away a good deal of its power. The Engrossed substitute SB-5579 restricts the volatility of the oil carried, but only if the oil company transports 10% more oil than it did in 2018. It reads, “A facility may not load or unload crude oil into or from a rail tank car unless the oil has a vapor pressure of less than nine pounds per square inch beginning two years after the volume of crude oil transported by rail to the facility for a calendar year as reported under RCW 90.56.565 has increased more than ten percent above the volume reported for calendar year 2018.” We all are still in danger from these trains carrying highly explosive Bakken crude oil with a vapor pressure of 13psi.
Then I heard that fossil fuel companies of North Dakota, as well as its governor were pressuring Gov. Inslee to not sign the bill. I felt anxious again lest he’d give in to them. But I was also amazed that even though I see the bill as weak, the oil producers apparently see it as a threat to their business.
Joy in a semi-successful outcome
The good news is that Gov. Inslee stayed strong under the pressure and signed the bill on May 9, 2019. The passage of this bill, SB-5579 shows that the Washington State legislature and governor are pushing back against fossil fuel companies—perhaps not as strongly as we would like, but far better than before The story is not over, and lawsuits are likely, but there is reason to believe that our courage will inspire other states to challenge the fossil fuel industry, too. So I thank our local leaders and all the folks who have pushed for this change.
I want to continue spreading the word of hope. I want to keep urging people to join together and stand up for our children and for that which supports continued healthy life on our precious vulnerable earth.
I take inspiration from the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose work meant much to me in my formative years. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” she said. “Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
- “Governor OK’s mandate for carbon-free electricity by 2045” Spokesman Review by Rachel La Corte. May 8, 2019, from the Associated press.
- “We just did something big in WA” Climate Solutions by Joelle Robinson. July 30, 2019.
- “A timeline of recent oil train crashes in the US and Canada” Seattle Times Nation & World Originally published June 3, 2016 at 2:15. Updated June 4, 2016 at 1:39 am.
- “A Union Pacific Oil train has derailed and smoke and flames can be seen in Mosier, Ore., in the Columbia River Gorge” by Seattle Times staff. June 3, 2016 at 1:19 pm Updated June 4, 2016 at 8:53 am.
- “Measure Targeting Oil, Coal Trains with Fines Headed to City Ballot City Council” by Kip Hill. The Spokesman Review Copyright @2017 Spokesman-Review July 25, 2017.
- “CRASH and BURN: The real nightmare scenario? An oil train derailing in downtown Spokane” by Daniel Walters and Samantha Wohlfeil. Inlander May 4, 2017.
- Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5579 “Crude Oil by Rail—Vapor Pressure” as passed by House and Senate and signed by Governor Inslee, May 9, 2019 3:32 PM (go to leg.wa.gov for more details.)
- “North Dakota to sue Washington State over oil train standard” by Blake Nicholson. Associated Press , May 10, 2019.
9. “North Dakota to sue Washington over crude-by-rail law” by Mike Lee. E&E, May 14, 2019.
10. “Billig tries to take lead with new state law” by Shawn Vestal. Spokesman-Review May 15, 2019.