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Originally published Wednesday, November 19, 2014 at 5:03 PM

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Guest: Addressing the unacceptable risks from Bakken crude-oil trains

The risk of oil spills is too great to proceed so quickly with plans for expanded crude oil rail transportation throughout Puget Sound and Washington state, writes guest columnists Peter Goldmark and 10 tribal leaders.

Special to The Times

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CHANGES in the global energy market are threatening to turn Washington into a classic oil-boom state, focused more on short-term profits than the safety of its citizens, the health of its irreplaceable ecosystems and the treaty rights of sovereign tribal nations.

Since 2008, the volume of crude-oil trains on American railroads has increased by more than 40 times without any major investment in transportation infrastructure. This national boom has been mirrored in Washington, where much of the 1 million barrels of oil per day extracted from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota is being transported to our ports.

Despite this exponential increase in traffic in a few short years, there are multiple proposals for new terminals and expanded rail capacity that seek to increase even further the volume of crude oil being transported along Puget Sound and throughout the state.

This is far too much, far too fast.

Experience elsewhere in North America points to the dangers. According to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, more oil was spilled in rail accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years combined. That year, a single train spilled 750,000 gallons of oil into sensitive riparian areas and streams in Alabama.

In Washington, crude-oil transportation routes border hundreds of miles of vulnerable aquatic ecosystems, from the Columbia River to Puget Sound, that our people cherish and the state has a responsibility to protect. The environmental destruction that would result from a similar disaster in Washington could take decades and billions of taxpayer dollars to repair.

Due to the extraordinary volume of oil being transported and the flammability of Bakken crude, an oil-train accident also presents a serious public-safety threat. On July 6 last year, 47 Canadians in the town of Lac-Mégantic were killed when a 76-car freight train filled with Bakken crude oil overturned and caused multiple tank cars to explode. The human implications of a similar accident along our urban corridors and in our small towns are grim to contemplate.

Given the recent increase in the severity and frequency of oil train failures, we (Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark and 10 tribal leaders) believe the current safety standards governing the transport of crude by rail are insufficient to protect our communities and threatened ecosystems. Rail safety protocols, equipment and staffing currently in place have not been upgraded to match the exponential growth in the volume of crude oil being transported.

Though we recognize progress the federal Department of Transportation has made this year in proposing more aggressive rules on crude-by-rail transportation, it leaves existing infrastructural problems in place for years to come. That is unacceptable.

These issues should be addressed now, not after our already overmatched infrastructure is further tested by increased traffic.

Federal policymakers should also heed the concerns and warnings of the tribal nations across the Pacific Northwest who fear that this increase in oil traffic could lead to accidents that could compromise their treaty rights, fisheries, traditional way of life and sacred cultural resources.

State and tribal leaders must work together to persuade the federal government to address Washington’s concerns now and protect the future of our communities, working lands and wilderness areas.

Contributing to this column are State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and tribal leaders Tim Ballew II, Lummi Nation; Jim Boyd, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation; Brian “Spee~Pots” Cladoosby, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community; William B. Iyall, Cowlitz Indian Tribe; Maria Lopez, Hoh Indian Tribe; David Lopeman, Squaxin Island Tribe; Fawn Sharp, Quinault Indian Nation; Charles Woodruff, Quileute Tribe; Herman Williams Sr., Tulalip Tribes; and Gary Burke, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

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