Oct. 3, 2018: No train cars. Reuters reports that oil shipments to China have “totally stopped” as a casualty of escalating trade tension.
October 30: Twelve train cars behind the wall; 15 waiting just outside to the south. Placard number 1267: Crude oil.
November 26: No trains.
Jan. 16, 2019: Yes. More than 20 cars. Placard on side of train cars reads: “Toxic Inhalation Hazard.”
At Zenith Petroleum’s Portland Terminal in Oregon, multi-story oil drums rise along the banks of the Willamette River. Backhoes scratch dirt into a dump truck as sparks fly from welders building a metal structure behind walls topped with razor wire. Trucks rumble through on the last day of February, while black cylindrical oil-train cars line the rails. To the activists who fear they will remote detonate the global carbon budget — or even explode in their community — they look like rows of bombs.
After reports of Canadian tar sands moving through Portland surfaced last March, a small group formed to try to track local oil train shipments by visiting the terminal and writing down what they saw. Since then, the group has watched the terminal expand in front of their eyes, as Zenith adds new rail spurs and retools the facility to increase export capacity. The watchers know about the risks of oil-train spills and explosions across the Northwest. By bearing witness to the trains and their dangerous cargo, they aim to fill the gaps in public knowledge left by limited official information — and hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the threats it poses to their communities, and to the climate.
Natural light filters through a long window as Dan Serres, a train watcher and the conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, describes the project. “You would think that we would know how much oil is moving and when,” said Serres, who grew up just outside of Portland. “This is definitely a soft spot in how states are able to address oil-train traffic.”
The public is largely in the dark when it comes to what’s moving through their towns. In Washington, the Department of Ecology issues quarterly reports on oil trains; between October and December of last year, it said, 24,693 oil train cars and more than 16.8 million barrels of crude oil travelled the state’s rails. But that undercounts the total: Trains that merely pass through the state aren’t included. And Oregon has significantly less transparency. While the Oregon Fire Marshall publishes some information on Bakken crude oil train traffic, the state does not share comprehensive quarterly crude oil by train reports with the public. That’s because they are “security sensitive,” according to Jennifer Flynt, an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality public affairs officer.
Since 2016, when an oil train exploded in Mosier, Oregon, along the Columbia River, some state legislators have tried to institute stronger monitoring standards and safeguards, most recently this year. But so far, their efforts have fallen short. State Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D, who represents communities in northeast Portland, sponsored oil-train safety bills in 2017 and 2018. She said part of the reason Oregon hasn’t regulated the shipments is because, unlike other states, Oregon doesn’t have in-state refineries from which to collect fees or information.
Without comprehensive reporting, Northwest communities look to email lists, Twitter hashtags and smartphone ship-tracking apps to monitor trains. Loosely affiliated groups from Idaho, Washington and Oregon operate on a “see-something-share-something” basis, but are left putting together a puzzle with missing pieces as they try to understand what dangerous materials are rolling past their houses, schools and rivers.
LOOKING OUT AT THE DOZENS OF TRAINS parked outside Zenith’s terminal in Portland, Mia Reback describes how different the train watching is from her usual climate justice organizing, which she typically fuels by tapping into the energy of community gatherings and street protests. Coming to this industrial zone to bear witness to local fossil fuel infrastructure is lonelier, and isolating.
But for Reback, the chance to have an impact is worth that discomfort. As she takes pictures to document the new construction, she recalls visiting the terminal in the summer of 2015. She had joined a crowd gathered to remember the 47 lives lost a year earlier when an oil train exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada. Black-and-white placards commemorated the name and age of each person who died in the disaster: “To see the visual of children holding a sign of another child their age next to an oil-train car was incredibly, incredibly powerful.”
Portland politics tend to favor organizers like Reback and Serres. But even in a city that has passed ordinances to prevent new oil infrastructure development, fossil fuel companies seem to have figured out a way to peek through the green curtain the city hopes to close on their industry. Reback said she hopes the watchers’ work will “re-center power in our communities, when fossil fuel companies and other polluting industries have taken power from us.”
Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.