Saturday, June 15, 2013

Coal: A Perfect Storm Ingredient?

From Wikipedia: A "perfect storm" is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically. The term is also used to describe an actual phenomenon that happens to occur in such a confluence, resulting in an event of unusual magnitude.
An inedible recipe: Skagit River bridge collapse. Coal trains for export. Normal events: commuting, business, EMS, school buses, bike rides, Tulip Festival. Public expense. Private exemption. 
The past 10 days has seen me travel I-5 to Seattle twice for medical purposes, during which I also experienced the traffic delays caused by the Skagit River bridge's collapse. That little boo-boo was simply caused by an over sized truck colliding with the bridge structure. Of course, the public will pay for rebuilding the bridge, both in terms of government funding and its own inconvenience - including cumulative loss of business and personal time. That is to be expected. But, the unintended consequences of this accidental event caused me to think about how sensitive we are to compounded problems which radiate from such catastrophes.

For example, the detours required to bypass the I-5 bridge travel through adjacent areas that are unaccustomed and unequipped for the volume of traffic, making these alternatives more dangerous as well as slower. Also, the main detour to the west must cross the Skagit River downstream, in constricted Mt Vernon streets, before having to cross the BNSF mainline -at grade- to return to I-5. That creates other problems that also depend on train traffic. See how things can snowball and escalate to larger proportions? 

Now, let's turn back to the proposed GPT proposal that carries with it the prospect of up to 18 additional 1.5 -mile long coal trains per day. Many of the EIS comments submitted cited the inconvenience, danger, and major capital funding necessary to alleviate these problems. Guess what, unexpected events like the Skagit River bridge collapse would/will greatly compound the problem of dealing with many more trains! It is this compounding effect that must be anticipated and dealt with effectively and up-front.

Similar thinking was involved with restarting the Olympic Pipe Line after the disaster that occurred back in 1999.
The concept of applied 'Process Safety Management' was required of the owner/operator before permission was granted to rebuild/restart the pipeline. That took 18 months to satisfy, but the result was a much safer operation that takes into account most of the events -or sequence of events- that could lead to another leak and explosion. I believe the wait was well-worth the additional safety and public confidence.

Because we are an integrated society, it is fitting that public infrastructure be the responsibility of government, which in turn gains its authority and funding through the public - including private enterprise. However, if private enterprise demands higher privileges regarding infrastructure than it is willing to pay for, then additional considerations must be extracted from it. In the case of coal trains, that should include the costs of grade-separated crossings wherever feasible. Why not include these costs as part of the cost of shipping? 
You know, those who benefit, pay.

Floyd McKay has contributed two more articles on Crosscut, called the Tale of Two Cities. The first deals with the City of Ferndale, which seems to see the proposed GPT Coal Terminal through mostly rose-colored glasses; the second deals with the City of Burlington, which sees some real problems with GPT, without rose glasses.

The Skagit River bridge collapse provides a lens through which we can see real life scenarios that are with us now. It doesn't take much imagination to see how much 18 additional coal trains per day would grossly compound such problems, does it? Let's cut out the wishful thinking on GPT and get on with anticipating real problems and their solutions instead.