Videos show disputed oil trains rolling by stadiums during games

SEATTLE -- There were nearly 70,000 fans at CenturyLink Field for the Seahawks game last Sunday, and they will be there again on Monday night.

That makes some people anxious. It's not about what's happening inside the stadium, but just outside. Several times each day, mile-long oil trains full of highly flammable crude oil roll past CenturyLink and Safeco Fields without regard to whether there is an event underway.

In the oil trains' 1,600-mile journey from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the Washington coast, it is by far the densest population squeeze.

Oil trains have derailed and exploded 10 times in North America during one recent two-year period. The U.S. Department of Transportation said in a July 2014 analysis that it expects an increasing number of oil train derailments in coming years.

The city of Seattle has asked BNSF to stop. The railroad has not agreed to do so. There's no law against it. Critics of oil trains say, in the event of an unthinkable disaster, it is a "worst case scenario."

"We have incredible risk being foisted on the public with no accountability whatsoever. And that's something that needs to change," said Matt Krogh of Forest Ethics, one of a number of activist groups opposing oil trains.

BNSF Railroad Spokesperson Gus Melonas said the trains are safe and the railroad shouldn't have to stop.

"How much safer can you get than 99.9 percent of the hazmat moved last year incident free in this region," Melonas said. "But we're going to continue to ensure that we have a perfect, unblemished record. And we want to protect those Seahawk and Mariner fans as well."

Fans have periodically taken cellphone images showing oil trains going by the stadiums during games. But the KOMO News Investigators sought to chronicle it with our own cameras. Because BNSF does not release oil train schedules, we directed a remote camera from the Columbia Tower roof and set up a second remote camera in an office building to record video during games and events at both stadiums.

The video shows oil trains repeatedly rolling by just 20 yards outside of Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field during games. For example, during a recent game with 32,000 fans in the stands, 106 oil train tank cars rolled on by outside hauling 2.5 million gallons of Bakken crude oil, a highly flammable, volatile version of normal crude oil.

As a young girl was yelling "play ball!" to kick off a game, our cameras chronicled it again and again, often right under Safeco field's sliding roof. The Seattle City Council used a unanimous resolution to implore BNSF to stop. Federal regulators, aware of Seattle's situation, have not sought to stop it.

Fans we spoke with have mixed opinions.

"There are practices in place and it should be safe," said Nathan Bower.

"It would be catastrophic," said Cathy Cruz.

"Why don't they run them in the middle of the night? It's safer. It's like a simple idea," said Milt Schwartz.

With the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, and concerts, there are nearly 200 events a year at these two stadiums. Even with two to three oil trains a day, mathematically, it's still an extremely low risk. But it takes just one incident for a catastrophe.

Forty-seven people were killed in the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, when an oil train derailed and exploded there two years ago. Suddenly, more people took notice of even non-lethal oil train explosions in the news.

After Lac Megantic was Alabama, North Dakota, New Brunswick, Lynchburg, Virginia, Ontario, West Virginia, Illinois, another in Ontario, and another in North Dakota. Ten oil train explosions within a two-year span. There was a loss of life in just one.

"The Good Lord was looking out for us," said an eyewitness in North Dakota.

In fact, an oil train has already derailed in Seattle, in the Interbay area. There was no spill, no fire, and no explosion. Krogh, standing outside the two stadiums, said we were lucky.

"I would say that right here on game day at Safeco or at CenturyLink, we're almost certainly looking at what Burlington Northern would have modeled as their worst-case scenario," he said.

BNSF says this region has had almost no problems moving hazardous material.

"No, we don't feel that it's unsafe," he said. "And, if we did, we wouldn't be operating trains during those ball games."

Five years ago, there was almost no crude oil hauled by train. But with massive production of Bakken crude from North Dakota and the surrounding region, the number of oil trains has skyrocketed. So oil trains are likely not going away soon. The question is making them safe enough.

Newer tank cars are safer, but there's enormous debate over just how much safer. Further, it'll take years to replace older tank cars that the head of the Federal Railway Administration compared to Ford Pintos, a car once mired in controversy over alleged unsafe design. FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said on NPR's "Living On Earth" a newer replacement tanker was "a Pinto with a better bumper instead of just a Pinto."

All the movement of trains in Seattle is controlled from BNSF headquarters in a massive command center in Fort Worth, Texas, that Melonas says is larger than a football field and, in some ways, more advanced than NASA. He says they move oil trains slowly, 10-15 miles an hour, through Seattle and into the tunnel under downtown, itself a separate concern for Seattle's Fire Department.

BNSF says they've invested $20 million in new tracks here. They monitor the rails, the switchers, the wheels.

"All eyes are on these trains," Melonas said.

There is a potential solution: A track that would take the oil trains and the risk away from Seattle completely. It's the Transcontinental Route over the North Cascades.

Oil trains currently run from the east to the west along the Columbia River gorge before heading north through Tacoma, Seattle and Everett. The North Cascades route along Stevens Pass bypasses those cities, but would cost BNSF more money.

Because the track goes up the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains, it requires more engines and shorter oil trains, and might clog up faster moving freight trains that rely on those tracks. Melonas says it's inefficient, but concedes it's not impossible.

"It just doesn't make sense for us operationally to run loaded, heavy, slow moving oil trains that require double the locomotives," he said.

Activists say BNSF prefers the downtown Seattle route to maximize profits.

"There's no question they're making money. Hand over fist," said Krogh.

We asked BNSF whether oil trains can be scheduled at times other than stadium events.

"You can't selectively just stop trains for a Seahawk game," Melonas said. "You have crew personnel issues. There's a lot involved in the big puzzle. It's a complicated network. And as much as people would like us to stop traffic, we can't."

Automatic braking systems, also known as Positive Train Control, were Congressionally-mandated to be in place by year's end. It's delayed. The state's effort to make things safer is proving to be a slow process. A computer system to give oil train schedules to first responders is delayed. A big looming issue is the state's new requirement for railroads to have full insurance to pay for major disasters.

Right now, railroads cannot find enough insurance to cover a major disaster that could generate billions of dollars in damages to a city, because insurers don't want the risk. BNSF said what is not covered by limited insurance policies can be self-insured by corporate funds.

The railroad industry and the U.S. Department of Transportation said the number of oil trains will continue to increase. Should Congress vote to lift laws against exporting crude oil, and if export facilities are built on Washington State's coast, the number of oil trains running through Washington state will increase even more.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off