Increase in oil trains poses a risk to our valley | MY TURN

My bedroom window overlooks the Auburn/Kent Valley where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard is sited.

My bedroom window overlooks the Auburn/Kent Valley where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail yard is sited.

I often hear the trains switching at night. If you’ve ever heard a mile-long train change direction, you’d remember the sound: a long, low boom. I’m worried that one day soon, I might hear an even bigger boom, like the one that blasted the West Virginia town of Mount Carbon a couple of weeks ago.

What’s more, over the past month, an explosion occurred at an oil refinery in California, an oil train derailed in Ontario, Canada, and no fewer than four oil spills were reported in North Dakota.

All these events should remind us of the derailment and explosion of an oil train in Canada in 2013 that tragically killed 47 people. A disaster like that can happen right here in Auburn if we don’t take action now.

More trains mean greater risk. The Bakken oil rush has increased the number of carloads of oil to 435,000 per year in 2013. That’s 45 times the number of oil-by-rail tank cars moved in 2008. The oil companies are not removing highly explosive gases such as ethane, propane and butane before shipping the oil in rail cars, making these tankers, even the newer CPC-1232 tankers that were involved in all three of the most recent derailments, nothing more than rolling bombs that pass through our cities near our homes, schools, hospitals and businesses.

The Interurban Trail runs through Auburn next to the rail lines. When I ride my bike there, I’ve often seen a dad teaching his daughter to ride. The increased risk of the little girl getting asthma or cancer from diesel fumes aside, if there were an explosion, in whose ledger would her death be an acceptable loss? Balanced against what? A few dozen jobs at an oil terminal? Oil company profits?

Adjacent to the bike trail is a new Environmental Park. We’re trying to reclaim and restore wetlands damaged by excessive and poorly planned development in the valley. If tar sands oil spills into those wetlands, habitat for birds and fish will be irreparably damaged. Heavy tar sands oil (diluted bitumen, or dilbit) is as thick as peanut butter; dilbit sinks in water and cannot be completely cleaned up. A healthy ecosystem and beautiful lakes and rivers bring tourists and business to Washington State. Oil transport puts all that at risk.

We can’t let multinational oil giants use Washington state as a doormat. They want to run roughshod over us in the name of profit, selling dirty fossil fuels to China and the rest of Asia. Fossil fuels that modern climate science tells us are best left where they are: in the ground.

The Oil Transportation Safety Bill (HB 1449) is making its way through the state Legislature. The bill won’t stop the trains and the tankers, but it would supply our towns and cities with the information they need (and the Auburn City Council has asked for) while training our first responders so that they are better prepared for a disaster.

Financial responsibility for spills and infrastructure improvements must be assumed by the companies shipping these highly explosive and toxic fuels; taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the damage of an explosion or a spill. The bill ensures that shippers are adequately insured and increases the barrel tax on oil shipments to pay for preparation and training. Our firefighters and other first responders agree: HB 1449 is the LEAST we can do to make our communities safer.

Please call or write to your state senator and tell them, “Protect your constituents, not oil company profits. Pass the Oil Transportation Safety Bill (HB 1449).”

The legislative hotline is 1-800-562-6000. To comment on the bill visit:

Brian L. Gunn is a political activist living in Auburn. He is a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps and chair of the Washington State Progressive Caucus. If you would like to schedule a presentation on the climate crisis for your group, he can be reached at