Olympic Ramification: A Transfer of Chemicals From Vancouver to a Small Washington Town Stuns its Residents

A resident of a bucolic hamlet in Washington State learned on the Spokane evening news that 50 chlorine railcars will travel from this plant in North Vancouver to his back yard where they will remain parked for the duration of the Winter Games. What the newscast didn't tell him was that that in all probability the railcars won't be departing when the Games end. Photo by Linda Solomon

Thomas and Holly Bieker moved to a big farmhouse 150 feet from a railroad track in Belmont, Washington ten years ago, because they loved the beauty and solitude of the rural landscape.  They were even willing to drive more than thirty-five miles to their university jobs five days a week to live in the midst of nature.    The green fields around them looked like a park and the little house fit them perfectly. "We truly felt blessed in the choice of our dear little home," Holly Biecker said.
But this week, their peace of mind was shattered by news that the Vancouver-based Canexus Chemical had won permission from the State of Washington to store 50 railcars full of chlorine   at the edge of their property line, just over the tracks---cars that, Biecker was told by a Canexus official, were considered to be a security threat and a potential terrorist target during the 2010 Olympic Games. The cars, he said he was told,  will leave Canexus's North Vancouver plant and travel to his backyard before the Games begin. "He said their plan was to just bring it down during the Winter Olympics, but because they need a place to store their chemicals anyway, there's a 98% chance that they'll store cars here forever."

"I have never been punched in the face before but for the last two days I feel as if I have been blindsided," Biecker wrote Marty Cove, Logistics Manager, for Canexus, after learning of Canexus's proposal on the six o'clock news. It was Cove's job to visit the Bieckers and the ten other families that live in Belmont and inform them of the company's proposal.

The company plans on building a $250,000 barbed wire fence around the cars and has said it will provide round the clock armed guards to protect it. Biecker referred to a document he said the company sent to homeowners around the community that asked, "Are there any benefits for the community?"  and then answered: "Yes, there will be additional employment in the area. Washington Railroad will be hiring six local people to provide security services for the storage facility and the rail cars."

"The weird thing was we didn't have a clue about any of this.  They went and got their permits before anyone knew.  The county waived their rights. They just said we don't want anything to do with it.  They went to the state of Washington. The feds, whatever they had to do.  That's who they went through and got all their permits from them and it was all approved," Biecker said.

According to Biecker, County Commissioner Greg Partch told him the county had waived its rights to stop the plant.  "Everybody's broke," Biecker said.  "All the states and the counties."  He said Partch told him he had a right to file a lawsuit against Canexus for parking the chemicals so close to his home.  "I called an attorney but the attorney said, 'I'm sure they have a lot more money than you do.' He said it'd just go back and forth so far that it'd just be hard to win the case."  Neither Partch not Cove could not be reached for comment at the time this article was filed.

The Vancouver Observer received an email from Biecker yesterday that said, "Canexus plans on storing 50 railcars in my front yard during the Olympics and possibly longer. My name is Tom Bieker I live in Belmont,Washington. There are 10 people who live in our little community. We were not informed by  Canexus until after the channel 4 news got hold of the story. The cars will be 150 feet from my house. We do not want this to happen. What can we do?"

He said he harbours no animosity towards the Olympics or Canada.  Still, he said he feels violated by Canexus's plans.  "He [Marty Cove] told me you could take a 50-caliber rifle and you couldn't put a dent in the thing [chlorine rail cars.]  He said, 'I could almost betcha' that even a hand grenade couldn't put a dent in the thing.'"

But, Biecker added, "These are old tracks.  Every tie is rotten. You get 50 railcars that are full of chlorine gas. If they tip over, what happens?  If there's a fire in the fields right here and it catches the ties on fire and the tanks...it's not going to do us any good."

"He said they've been in business 50 years and never had a spill.  But when you've got any kind of business, there's gotta be problems.  He was saying, 'hell, we have these tanks in downtown Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Houston...they're all over the world and nothing's ever happened and it's no big deal."

But chlorine is the deadliest chemical on earth and spills happen. On September 16, 2009, in the small town of Clarines, Venezuela a chlorine tanker overturned and leaked, killing eight and injuring over 100 people. Apparently, the eight people died after the chlorine reacted with the mucus in their lungs and formed hydrochloric acid. The entire population was evacuated from the town.  On January 6, 2005 a train carrying chlorine derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina. The leaking chlorine killed eight and injured 250.  Over five thousand people had to be evacuated.  On March 29, 2005 in Huai'an, China a truck carrying 30 tons of chlorine was in an accident and the leak that resulted left 28 dead, 350 hospitalized and 10,000 evacuated.  And in Bexar County, Texas, on June 28, 2004 residents awoke to see a "strange cloud" engulfing their homes caused by a chlorine leak in a breached train car that left three dead and 43 injured.

Biecker is a hazardous waste technician at University of Idaho and no stranger to chemicals. "You gotta have chlorine to make water clean," he said.  "But to park it in someone's front yard, it's just not something we would ever have imagined."

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