Why New Improved Oil Trains Are Not Nearly Good Enough

A closer look at the many flaws of CPC-1232 tank cars.
This post is 58 in the series: The Northwest's Pipeline on Rails
“Tesoro is committed to the safe and environmentally sound handling of crude oil. The safe design of rail cars in crude service is of paramount importance.” —Keith Casey, senior vice president of strategy and business development, Tesoro.

Last February to much fanfare, the oil company Tesoro—a firm with big plans for oil trains in the Northwest—announced that it would voluntarily replace older tank cars with newer models.  In the technical parlance of the rail industry, the firm meant that they would upgrade or replace the legacy DOT-111 tank cars to be compliant with the CPC-1232 standard.

The idea sounded promising at first blush, but a closer inspection reveals that Tesoro’s move was more about posturing than public safety. The upgraded standards the company is trumpeting are far from safe enough—a reality that was shortly made clear by a massive oil train fire in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia involving these same tank cars just two months after Tesoro’s announcement. As the flaming oil wreckage in the James River demonstrated, Tesoro’s proposal was little more than a cheapskate’s way of continuing business as usual despite powerful evidence that much more is needed.

To see why the standard favored by Tesoro isn’t good enough, here’s a look at the details. Read more »

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Northwest Oil Spills: the Raw Data and the Growing Risk

Planned projects in US and Canada would dramatically increase spills.
This post is 5 in the series: The Risk of Northwest Oil Spills

When most people think of an oil spill, they imagine something like the Exxon Valdez grounding. While it’s certainly possible that a mishap of that magnitude could occur in the Northwest, the truth is most oil spills are far more mundane. They are also much more frequent, and arguably more damaging, than you might think.

Take Puget Sound, for example. During the 38-month span from December 2009 to January 2013, there were 757 confirmed spills in the Sound—nearly 20 per month. Accidental bilge discharges, overfilling fuel tanks, and a rather surprising number of vessels sinking—four different pleasure boats sank and spilled oil in December 2011 alone—are common. Every now and again we might here about a peculiar one, like the 416 gallons spilled when crews loaded diesel into a leaky tank barge or the 36 crushed cars that fell into Commencement Bay, but most often they receive little media attention.

The raw data show that vessels in Puget Sound are a steady source of oil contamination.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

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Weekend Reading 1/23/15

Being poor is really expensive, Canada's racism problem, and more.


This was news to me (the German history, not the “old as love itself” part). And fascinating: “although same-sex love is as old as love itself, the public discourse around it, and the political movement to win rights for it, arose in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant’s response to Obama’s SOTU speech: Where was he when it mattered?

Recent polling found that most wealthy Americans believe “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” As Charles M. Blow writes in the NYT, this impression is way off base, not to mention offensive and callous. Being poor is not just not easy. Institutional and structural barriers (e.g., bank fees, balance requirements, credit requirements, housing deposits, police targeting, regressive taxes, predatory lending, and check cashing) make being poor really expensive.

And the cover story in latest MacLean’s Magazine: Canada’s racism problem (at its worst in Winnipeg).


Oof. I’d be laughing more if this weren’t so true.

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Seattle’s Downtown School Is Back in Play

School board now "enthusiastic" to bid on Federal Reserve Bank building.
This post is 17 in the series: Family-Friendly Cities

The prospects for a downtown Seattle school brightened somewhat yesterday, with a unanimous school board vote allowing the district to bid on the empty Federal Reserve Bank building at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Spring Street.

The federal government is auctioning off the vacant building—which is the right size to house 660 students—to the highest bidder. With the auction closing next Wednesday, no one has submitted a bid so far. But the school district will likely have competition—at least one other entity has paid the auction’s $100,000 registration fee, officials have said.

The feds reduced the minimum bid from $5 million to $1 million last week, and buying the building outright would remove timing and funding issues that were earlier stumbling blocks for the district.

Seattle remains the largest Northwest city without a downtown public school, and opening one has been the top priority for a growing number of urban parents who want to raise families in downtown Seattle. Many move to the suburbs or other Seattle neighborhoods before their kids enter kindergarten. The ones who plan to stay argue their kids should have the same access to a convenient neighborhood school as families living elsewhere in the city. As downtown parent Michael George put it:

This would be a gamechanger for us. A downtown school is more important than any other issue. Its not just about having a school. Right now having a family with kids downtown is difficult because there aren’t many playgrounds and there isn’t a place to create a community around. What a school would do is help kids and parents from throughout downtown connect around something. I think that’s what we’re really looking for.

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Rain gardens could make runoff safe for salmon

Filtering polluted stormwater through soil makes it non-lethal for fish.
This post is part of the research project: Stormwater Solutions: Curbing Toxic Runoff

When Northwest scientists collected rainwater runoff from Seattle’s Highway 520 and exposed juvenile salmon to the stormwater, all of the fish were dead within 12 hours.

But if they first treated the stormwater by running it through a column containing primarily sand, compost, and shredded bark—essentially a mini rain garden—the coho survived.

The researchers repeated the test with tiny crustaceans and mayfly nymphs, a favorite food of juvenile salmon. Again, the untreated water proved deadly while filtration through the faux rain garden removed enough pollution that the creatures survived.

“This is a simple approach that can make a big difference in the quality of water flowing into our rivers and streams,” said Jennifer McIntyre, postdoctoral researcher at Washington State University and lead author of the research, which is being published this month in the journal Chemosphere.

“In this case, the salmon and their prey are telling us how clean is clean enough,” said McIntyre in press release. Read more »


How the Oil Industry Will Try to Kill Carbon Pricing

Is the sky falling? No, gas prices are.
This post is 32 in the series: Cashing In Our Carbon

As Oregon and Washington contemplate a carbon tax or carbon cap, the oil industry is revving the engines for an astro-turf scare campaign here. The oil lobby spends a million dollars a month in California. As Oregon and Washington start thinking about holding them accountable, the oil lobby is turning its scare machine our way.

Governor Inslee has proposed a plan that would cap carbon pollution in Washington and move the state slowly but surely away from fossil fuels—away from what oil and coal companies sell—and onto clean energy. California has capped pollution from power plants and industrial facilities since 2013; when gas and diesel came under the cap this year, most economists estimated it would cost customers about a dime a gallon. But the powerful Western States Petroleum Association warned voters and legislators about a “hidden gas tax” that could cost families 76 cents a gallon of gas. Now that California has been holding polluters accountable for a few weeks, what has the price impact been? The price tag for clean air—maybe a few cents a gallon—was lost in the noise of gas prices that rise and fall ten times that amount every few months.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

There are two things that Oregon and Washington can learn from Western States Petroleum Association’s “Wolf!”: Read more »


Northwest Ships: Near Misses and Almost-Spills

Two dozen times when we avoided catastrophe, narrowly.
This post is 4 in the series: The Risk of Northwest Oil Spills

The Northwest is evaluating more than a dozen major projects that would add oil tankers and other major cargo ships to the region’s waters. Nearly all of these plans would affect Washington’s waters: either on the Columbia River, Grays Harbor, or in the labyrinthine channels of the Salish Sea. In the simplest terms, increasing ship traffic means increasing risk. And as the region is contemplating an astonishing jump in vessel traffic, it’s worth pausing to examine the record.

As with actual oil spills, near misses are frighteningly common. Natural phenomena, like winds and tides, compound human blunders to result in collisions and groundings (and narrowly averted ones). Alongside these mishaps are countless instances of mechanical failure. They do not always spill oil, but the risk is nearly omnipresent.

For example? In the months of November and December 2011 alone, large bulk or container vessels, often carrying hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel oil in single-hulled tanks, experienced nine separate incidences of mechanical failure or a loss of propulsion in Washington waterways. During that same two-month period, three different laden oil tankers drifted into dangerous collision courses with other vessels, prompting Coast Guard authorities to intervene. Indeed, episodes of tank vessels straying into the path of oncoming traffic, and vice versa, occur with startling regularity, spared only by Coast Guard operators hundreds of miles away who happen to notice an unusual blip on their screens.

In other cases, the catastrophes were not so much averted as simply avoided by blind luck. Had events unfolded just a bit differently, Washington’s most important waterways would been subjected to another major spill.

Below is an abridged collection of cases when things very nearly went very wrong. Read more »


Weekend Reading 1/16/15

Macklemore on Sesame Street, one dog's solo bus commute, and more.
This post is 187 in the series: Weekend Reading


Teju Cole nails it again. He had an excellent piece in the New Yorker on the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He describes how it is far easier to mourn the freedom-representing victims of a few unhinged individuals—and even easier if the killers are Muslim—than it is to name and challenge the violence against free speech and action carried out every day by our own Western governments.

I love Aziz Ansari. I love him even more when he lambastes Rupert Murdoch for his Islamophobic comments after Charlie Hebdo.

Bad day? I once boosted my mood with a binge session of Sesame Street celebrity musical performances… yes, really. Here’s a new one, with “Mucklemore” performing a “Thrift Shop” parody.


This routine is all too familiar: Woman coworker comes up with a great new idea in a meeting. Male colleague cuts her off and/or runs with her idea and winds up taking—and getting—all the credit for it. (Woman keeps quiet.) Read more »

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Which Washington Legislators Take the Most Coal, Oil, and Gas Money?

For fossil fuel companies, the winners are…

The 2015 Washington legislative session promises to be one of the more contentious in recent memory. Governor Inslee is advancing bills to reduce carbon emissions and better regulate oil transport, while the Republican-dominated Senate vows to obstruct his agenda. Both issues will pit fossil fuel companies—and especially Big Oil—against the governor.

It is, then, an opportune time to daylight the fact that the major opponents of the proposed legislation are also the state’s biggest recipients of dirty energy money. We analyzed records from the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, as well as several national political funding online databases, to track campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry to every elected official in the state during the last election cycle.

Direct donations

The top three recipients are all members of the state Senate, the chamber best positioned to block the governor’s bills. They are:

  1. Democrat Timothy Sheldon (District 35) – $19,300
  2. Republican Andrew Hill (District 45) – $19,100
  3. Republican Douglas Ericksen (District 42) – $17,600

Read more »


Understanding the North American Tar Sands

What it takes to "Fight Goliath": a radio documentary.
“You put a big black blob in the middle of Canada, and you reach out a tentacle to every part of the Coast, there is a giant octopus that is essentially wrapping its tentacles around North America.”

Last year, Portland’s KBOO Community Radio profiled what is “the largest industrial project on Earth”: the North American tar sands. Typically, one hears of the “Canadian tar sands,” as if the issue is one that lives only north of the US national border and need not concern American citizens. But reporter Barbara Bernstein’s documentary, “Fighting Goliath,” revealed an alarming and very real threat that deserves the same scrutiny as the coal export and oil train schemes better known in the Northwest and Plains states.

However, this is not just an account of the tar sands as a sprawling behemoth, from their massive open pit mines to their toxic tailings ponds, from their environmentally sensitive transport routes to their huge water needs and giant equipment and infrastructure demands. Bernstein also tells the story of a powerful and diverse group of citizens who came together to oppose tar sands expansion in the corporate interest and to demand accountability from government officials in responding to the public’s concerns.

It’s the most riveting hour of radio you’ll hear for a while, guaranteed. Listen in. Read more »

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