An Open Letter to Warren Buffett: Put Public Safety Before Profit and Prioritize Oil Train Regulation

Dear Mr. Buffett,

One year ago this week, an oil train passing through Seattle ran off the tracks underneath the Magnolia Bridge, derailing three of its 100 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. Considering that unrefined Bakken crude is highly volatile, we count ourselves lucky to have avoided the catastrophic impacts these tank cars could have brought upon this city.

Today I write to you inviting an action that supports the best interest of Seattle and furthers your legacy as a leader of integrity for your generation. As local and federal policymakers grapple with the increasing risks oil trains pose to our communities, you are faced with a watershed moment. You can use your influence as the largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, which owns not only Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), but also Union Tank Car, to minimize the risk to life, property, and the environment from oil trains.

An oil spill in Seattle so close to Puget Sound could take millions of dollars to clean up and a generation to recover. Or worse, an explosion in Seattle could result in an untold loss of human life and property damage if it were to occur downtown along the railroad tracks that run a stone's throw away from the stadiums where the Mariners and Seahawks play. Frighteningly, these scenarios are well within the realm of possibility, as we have already seen five fiery oil train derailments in North America this year. Something must be done to protect Seattle and countless other cities across the country that bear the risk that your deadly oil trains pose.

I've done everything I know how to do as a citizen, an activist, and as a City Councilmember to try and stop an inevitable disaster from happening. But cities are severely limited in our ability to impose regulatory measures on oil trains. The federal government has primary jurisdiction to regulate railroad use and therefore has the most authority to mitigate the potential for tragic consequences associated with oil train accidents.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe and railroad industry representatives have used their influence to routinely oppose federal and state safety regulations such as speed limits, public information disclosure, liability coverage for catastrophic incidents, minimum staffing requirements on trains, and electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems. And as a result of industry pressure, Model DOT-111 tank cars full of crude oil will still be allowed on rail lines passing through Seattle for at least two more years, despite the fact that they have a "high incidence of failure during accidents" and "can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involved multiple car-to-car impacts," according to a 2012 Railroad Accident Report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

This industry opposition poses disastrous consequences for which railroad companies are not prepared. The Bakken crude-filled oil train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec vaporized 47 people instantly. In addition to the terrible loss of life, liabilities totaled upwards of $2 billion and forced the railroad company into bankruptcy. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is not enough commercial insurance coverage in the world to adequately cover the costs that would be associated with a worst-case oil train derailment in a major city like Seattle.

Oil trains are ticking time bombs on rails, and each one passing through a small town in North Dakota or a large city like Seattle is a risk to the people and the environment of that community. We urgently need stronger federal protections against these dangerous oil trains rolling through our communities. So I urge you to use your immense influence in Washington, DC and around the country to call for the immediate passage of the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act.

This Act, sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (WA-D), Tammy Baldwin (WI-D), Diane Feinstein (CA-D) and Patty Murray (WA-D), would strengthen notification and disclosure requirements regarding oil by rail shipments, require refinement of volatile Bakken crude prior to transport, improve oil tank car safety, and establish comprehensive emergency response plans in the event of large oil train accidents. These regulations will provide far greater assurances than those given by BNSF or Berkshire Hathaway thus far.

On the one-year anniversary of Seattle's own oil train accident, I implore to you join me in calling for public safety over profit. I ask that Berkshire Hathaway and BNSF take full responsibility for the risks they impose on Seattle and other cities across the country. I call on you to use the full force of your influence to support the federal regulations necessary for the oil and rail industries to bear the costs and risks of safe oil production and transport. Doing nothing -- or worse, continuing opposition to new safety regulations -- puts the lives of the millions of people living and working along these railways in danger, jeopardizes your legacy, and could leave you with blood (and oil) on your hands.

Please join with Seattle and cities around the country in calling for the safe, responsible transport of oil by rail, and help us get out of this unjust situation where you make all the profit while we bear all the risk.

Sincerely,

Mike O'Brien
Seattle City Councilmember