City presses feds to make trains safer, approves annexation

Published on Wed, Feb 19, 2014 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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While many residents are in favor of the rail traffic that comes from commuter and passenger rail services, there are also many who are wary of increased freight, especially when it comes to railcars carrying hazardous materials. 

On February 10, Blaine City Council passed a resolution that supported increasing safety standards for rail cars carrying hazardous materials through the city limits – a growing concern for council. 

“There are rail cars hauling flammable liquids through Blaine,” said council member Dennis Olason. “And we don’t have any idea of exactly what they’re carrying.”

An estimated 92,000 rail cars carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids are traveling along the nation’s railways, but only 15 percent of those tanks and cars meet puncture-resistant standards that apply to newer rail cars, as noted in the city’s resolution.

“We need to [put more pressure] on the federal level to improve safety standards,” said council member Steve Lawrenson. “Coal and oil are the least of our worries.”

Even more worrisome is that those operating the trains often have no emergency training if the worst should happen.

North Whatcom Fire and Rescue fire chief Henry Hollander said that the cars could be carrying a wide variety of 

chemicals and liquids, and the threat they pose is high. “There’s a whole list of hazardous material that travels on the rails,” he said. “Each train has an engineer and conductor and they have no emergency training to deal with a derailment except to unhook the cars and get them out of the way.”

If a disaster does happen, it immediately becomes the problem of local emergency service workers. “We deal with it on our level for the first 24 hours,” Hollander said, “and handle any immediate life threats, working with [Washington State Patrol]. If it flows into the harbor or there’s any leakage, it gets ratcheted up to the state.”

Blaine police chief Mike Haslip said being on the border is an advantage if such a scenario should occur. “The engineers are trained to work with us for documentation handling, and all the manifests are available in an electronic format, so we can determine the danger and make a plan,” he said. 

The resolution was passed 4–0 with council members Paul Greenough, Bonnie Onyon and Clark Cotner absent from the meeting.

In other council news, Amirtpal Singh Toor (a.k.a. Paul Toor), has petitioned the city of Blaine to annex a 15-acre multi-owner parcel into the city of Blaine. 

Toor, one of the property owners, requested the annexation by direct petition to the city and submitted a notice of intent to seek annexation. “Annexations are a multi-step process,” said community planner Michael Jones. “We rely on that for anything that isn’t already regulated by the city.” 

The property is located at the northeast corner of Sweet and Odell roads, and is adjacent to property that is currently zoned for manufacturing. The annexation would bring the plot of land into the city’s borders and give the city control over the entire Sweet and Odell intersection. It would also allow Toor to connect to the city’s water and sewer systems that are already established in the area. 

There are currently two homes on the property. However, Toor and his associates own 13.5 of the 15 acre parcel, and will exceed the 60 percent threshold required for their petition to annex, Jones said. 

The property is within the city’s urban growth area.

Developer Larry Stoner, who represented Toor at the meeting, said the property was a keystone parcel that would allow the city to gain control of that fourth corner for manufacturing and retail purposes.

“I’ve seen in The Northern Light that you want to add jobs and businesses and this will accomplish that,” Stoner said. “We think it will enhance Blaine.”

The notice of intent to seek annexation was approved 4–0. Annexation will proceed, and a petition will be sent to council for approval.