Part Two: What Could Have Been?

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In the first installment in this series, we laid out the backdrop against which a train derailment occurred on December 22, 2020, near the town of Custer, Washington north of Seattle. The incident resulted in the derailment of 10 cars in a train carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil. Everyone within a half-mile of the resulting fire was evacuated while authorities dealt with the blaze.

It could have been much, much worse. The intent of this attack was not to cause a fire in the woods. It was almost certainly to take out a major U.S. oil refinery.

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At the time of the derailment, the train in question was headed to the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale, Washington. After a stop for a crew change, during which the sabotage appears to have occurred, the train was rolling the last few miles into the refinery. Based on the investigative report into the accident the train appears to have been only a little over eight miles from the refinery when its cars went off the rails.

Based on the location where the sabotage occurred, the obvious continued anarchist focus on such targets, and the fact that action against the train was taken just before it was to arrive in Ferndale – not elsewhere on its trip across multiple states – it seems reasonable that the intent was to cause the train to derail in the refinery itself. The train in question consisted of over 100 cars carrying Bakken crude oil, which reacts more like gasoline than crude oil when ignited. Had this derailment occurred only minutes later inside the refinery itself, the results would have been catastrophic.

The Ferndale refinery sits on the coast of Washington state. It includes a deep-water dock, a 30,000 BPD rail unloading facility, and access to existing crude oil pipelines. Its facilities consist of a fluid catalytic cracker, an alkylation unit, hydro-treating units, and a naphtha reformer.

The refinery produces gasoline, diesel, and fuel oil. Most of its production goes to markets in the Northwest United States. More than 400 people work at the refinery, and it covers a total of 850 acres. The facility processes close to 100,000 barrels of crude oil every day.

The mile-long train that was to roll into the Ferndale refinery was carrying a massive quantity of Bakken crude oil. While ordinary crude oil does not explode, Bakken crude can. It is much more volatile than normal crude oil.

Bakken oil ignites very easily and has exploded in multiple train derailments. It has high levels of natural gas liquids such as propane and butane. This makes the oil much more volatile and more likely to ignite than other types of crude oil.

The majority of crude oil moved by rail in the U.S. is Bakken oil. In the fourth quarter of 2020, in fact, over 85% of the crude oil being transported in Washington state was from the Bakken region.

In short, all the information in our possession shows we just dodged a bullet. A team of saboteurs set up at a known location where they knew the train would stop for a crew change and then physically compromised the braking system on the train and the coupling that keeps two sections of the train from separating. Those actions were designed for a specific purpose.

The anarchist saboteurs knew the train would now separate into two sections. The front part of the train would be pulled forward and away from the rear section by the two front locomotives. The rear section of the train would also continue forward although slightly more slowly pushed by the rear locomotives. The train, split in two, would continue to race down the track.

As soon as the engineer in the front section of the train began to slow down to enter the refinery, however, catastrophe would occur. The rear section of the train, under power, would crash into the front section causing multiple tank cars to explode and producing a fire that would spread to the refinery itself and its associated storage tanks.

Only through sheer luck did this occur, not inside the refinery but prior to the train arriving at its destination. As the train rounded a curve leaving the main track and entering the branch line leading to the refinery the plan unfolded prematurely and at a speed slower than that the saboteurs likely contemplated. A fire resulted, but one smaller than anticipated and in the “wrong” spot.

The saboteurs who carried out the attack are no doubt already revising their plans and ironing out the kinks. We can be sure they are moving with dispatch and acting with purpose. That is more than we can say about our federal government. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced recently that it had completed its investigation into the derailment and that it had limited the scope of that investigation to a review of the performance of the tanker cars in use on the train. No effort was made to explore the issue of sabotage.

In the next and final installment of this series, we will take a look at the implications of this attack and ask the key question. What’s next?

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