Sandpoint bears an eerie resemblance to Lac-MÃ©gantic, Quebec-before the disaster.
That little town of about 7,000 souls sits on the edge of a lake in northeastern Canada. It’s a tourist destination in a region known for its forest products. And it was founded when the railroad came through in 1884.
But two years ago on July 6, 2013, a 73-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed due to a combination of human error and an understaffed railroad. The multiple tanker cars were breached and exploded in the downtown, destroying 30 buildings and killing 47 people.
The eyewitness accounts are chilling and the aftermath is sobering. Of the 39 buildings still standing downtown, 36 must be demolished due to underlying contamination and the downtown is being relocated. The railroad, lacking adequate insurance to cope with the disaster, went bankrupt.
We haven’t had any such disaster, but we know the potential is there with one to three fully loaded oil trains passing through town each day and the possibility eight additional daily “bomb” trains passing through if multiple oil terminals are approved on the West Coast.
That’s why we invited Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute to speak at our Sandpoint Oil Train Forum recently.
An expert on the transport of fossil fuels through the Pacific Northwest, de Place described the dramatic increase of Bakken crude oil transport and how much of the future oil is ultimately destined for overseas markets. Meanwhile, Idaho gets all the impacts and none of the benefits.
“There’s something for everyone to hate about these projects,” de Place told the Sandpoint audience of about 100 people.
Meanwhile, concerns persist regarding the safety of the current train traffic. While BNSF officials have reassured Sandpoint officials and citizens that their top priority is safety, we have reasons to be skeptical.
Just last week, the Seattle Times reported on a jury award to a railroad union whistleblower who was fired for reporting safety violations.
And Jen Wallis, a BNSF conductor, expressed concern at our forum that the proposal for one-man freight train crews are likely to be raised again-a plan that the unions have rejected.
DÃ©jÃ vu-the train that derailed in lac Megantic had a one-man crew.