The national economy might run on oil but for Sandpoint, the energy source could also be its undoing.
About 75 north Idaho residents turned out June 24 to hear the latest on oil train threats from a panel of conservation and public safety groups, who said vigilance is important to maintain safety.
"It's going to happen eventually in Bonner County where we'll have to deal with some kind of incident," said Ron Stocking, fire chief both Sandpoint and the nearby community of Sagle. "Hopefully it will be a minor one."
Sandpoint is located at a critical rail juncture for freight trains carrying coal from Wyoming and Montana, and crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. Between 50 and 70 trains pass through the north Idaho resort town every day, and if planned export terminals on the Washington and Oregon coasts are built, that number is projected to increase dramatically.
That's worrisome to many, considering a number of derailments and explosions in recent years, including a 2013 explosion in Quebec that killed 47 people.
"The reason we are seeing so many derailments is because we are running so many crude oil trains," said Eric de Place, policy director at sustainability nonprofit Sightline Institute.
Stocking said the city is preparing emergency plans in the event a derailment occurs, with human life, property and environmental protection topping the list of priorities.
Meanwhile, Sandpoint City Councilwoman and Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper Director Shannon Williamson said the city is eyeing the possibility of a second rail bridge to accommodate more traffic. Projected for construction as early as 2018, the bridge would require a public comment period before authorization if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires a special permit. Council members have formally requested this special permit, Williamson said.
"Since this project is so far afield, we don't know what the Army Corps will do, but the request has been made," Williamson said.
A version of this article first appeared in the June 25 edition of the Sandpoint Reader.