Tag Archives: Idaho

Washington, Oregon officials caught by surprise: unit trains of tar sands moving through NW and CA

Repost from Oregon Public Broadcasting
[Editor: Significant quote for us in California: “The trains originate in Alberta, moving through Idaho to Washington. From there, some are bound for refining in Western Washington and others travel along the Columbia River into Portland and south into California.”  – RS]

Big Trainloads Of Tar Sands Crude Now Rolling Through NW

By Tony Schick, Feb. 9, 2015
Since 2012 Union Pacific has been moving oil through Oregon on mixed freight trains. In late 2014, the railroad began moving several mile-long trains of crude oil per month through the Northwest.
Since 2012 Union Pacific has been moving oil through Oregon on mixed freight trains. In late 2014, the railroad began moving several mile-long trains of crude oil per month through the Northwest. Kool Cats Photography / flickr

Trains carrying mass loads of heavy crude oil from Canada’s tar sands have begun moving through the Northwest, creating the potential for an oil spill in parts of Oregon and Washington where environmental agencies have no response plans or equipment in place.

Union Pacific now moves between seven and 10 of these mile-long trains of Canadian crude per month through Northwest states, according to railroad spokesman Aaron Hunt. They can carry more than a million gallons of oil.

The trains originate in Alberta, moving through Idaho to Washington. From there, some are bound for refining in Western Washington and others travel along the Columbia River into Portland and south into California.

The seven to 10 monthly trains represents a big  increase over Union Pacific trains that had  previously been hauling mixed freight that included oil tank cars. The mile-long “unit trains” began in late November, according to the railroad, but spill planners at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality and Washington’s Department of Ecology didn’t learn of the new shipments until late January and early February, respectively.

Both agencies, along with emergency responders and rail safety inspectors, were previously caught unprepared in 2013 when shipments of sweet light crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields started moving through the region.

Railroads are required to notify states about oil shipments larger than one million gallons under an emergency order from the federal Department of Transportation. The order was filed in response to national concerns about local fire departments being caught unaware or kept in the dark when these “rolling pipelines” were passing through their jurisdictions.

That order applies only to Bakken crude; shipments from Canada are exempt. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have called on the federal DOT to expand its regulation to include all shipments, with the aim of avoiding a situation like mile-long trains of tar sands crude moving without knowledge from the agencies tasked with oil spill cleanup.

“It is unacceptable that volatile tar sands oil has been moving through our communities for months and yet Oregon officials only found out about it last week,” Wyden said in a statement released to OPB/EarthFix. “This apparent lack of communication with state officials responsible for Oregonians’ health and safety is exactly why I have been pushing for an iron-clad rule to ensure first-responders in our communities are notified about these oil trains.”

Officials in Oregon and Washington said they lack the resources and authority for adequate spill planning along rail corridors. Rail lines touch more than a hundred watersheds in Oregon and cross more than a thousand water bodies in Washington.

Unlike plans for marine transports and storage facilities, plans for who responds, how and with what equipment are lacking in Oregon and Washington when it comes to rivers and lakes.

“We will respond, but our response won’t be as effective as it would be with the facilities where we’ve reviewed their plans, we know what they contain,” said Bruce Gilles, emergency response program manager at Oregon’s DEQ.

Should a train full of tar sand oil spill today, response teams will be “going in somewhat blind,” and that means they won’t be able to work as quickly as they should, Gilles said.

“You’re going to lose time, and that time translates into increased environmental damage and costs to clean up,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

David Byers, response manager for Washington’s Department of Ecology, said the state has begun filling the regional gaps where it lacks response plans, but the effort will take years.

Byers said tar sands crude presents many cleanup challenges the state’s never handled before.

Bitumen is a hydrocarbon extracted from Alberta’s tar sands. It’s too thick to be transported like conventional crude. It’s either refined into a synthetic crude — making it more like conventional crude oil —  or combined with additives that give it a more liquid consistency.

A heavy tar-like substance, bitumen can sink when it hits water. It’s also stickier, meaning it’s tougher to remove from wherever it spills. That’s what happened when a pipeline burst and spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The cleanup cost exceeded $1 billion.

Frequent rain and fast-moving rivers in the Northwest mean a lot of sediment that oil can stick to, further complicating cleanup.

Byers and Gilles say they have no way of knowing what specific type of crude is in a given oil tanker car. Knowing that they’re dealing with a tar sand crude oil spill would dramatically influence their response.

“It’s much harder to clean up on the bottom of a river bed,” Byers said. “Or if it sinks in, for example, Puget Sound, it’s going to be more difficult to clean up, and even more challenging for us to even locate and detect where the oil has migrated to.”

It wouldn’t just be up to Oregon or Washington officials to handle spill-response duties if an oil train derailed in their state. Union Pacific has 30 hazardous materials responders across its 32,000 mile network and relies on private contractors for handling spill incidents.

“This team of experts directs training, preparation and response for any type of accident involving hazardous materials,” spokesman Aaron Hunt said in an email. “We move hazardous materials on behalf of our customers because it is our job.”

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    NW states poll: residents support oil trains, but don’t know much about them

    Repost from Walowa.com (Walowa County, WA)
    [Editor: Significant quote: “Eric de Place, policy director for the Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, draws a connection between how much people know about oil trains and how much they support such projects….’What we’ve seen so far is that the more people know about these projects, the less they like them,’ De Place said.”  – RS]

    Poll: Most Northwest Residents Support Oil Trains But Don’t Know Much About The Issue

    July 9, 2014, Tony Schick, Cassandra Profita, EarthFix

    A 56-percent majority of Northwest residents support the transportation of oil by rail to reach West Coast refineries, with the refined oil being used for domestic purposes, according to a new DHM Research poll for EarthFix.

    However, a 54-percent majority said they have heard or read little or nothing about oil trains.

    The poll surveyed 1,200 residents across the Northwest 400 each in Oregon, Washington and Idaho from June 25-30. The margin of error for each state’s results was 4.9 percent. the three-state regional results had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

    Several oil-by-rail projects across the region have raised safety and environmental concerns, and opponent groups are working to stop some projects from moving forward. Oil train derailments in the U.S. have caused explosions and fires in the past year, and one derailment in Canada killed 47 people.

    But most of the Northwest residents polled disagreed with opponents who argue that the risks of transporting oil by rail are too high. Only 32 percent of respondents agreed that oil-by-rail shipments should be stopped to protect public safety and the environment. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they disagreed and 15 percent said they don’t know.

    John Horvick, vice president and director of research for DHM, said the poll shows the most people aren’t opposed to the idea of oil trains.

    “At least, they’re not opposed,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a ton of enthusiasm necessarily.”

    A majority of respondents 66 percent said railroads have good safety records and will do their best to prevent accidents and spills when transporting oil by train.

    “For the most part, people overwhelmingly thought the railroads can be trusted to handle this,” Horvick said.

    Statistically speaking, major derailments or collisions on railroads are rare. But a recent EarthFix story revealed many within the railroad industry have concerns about railroads’ commitments to safety.

    Most people polled said they hold businesses in the oil industry as well as elected officials and governments responsible for preventing oil train accidents and spills. While 88 percent said businesses in the oil industry need to prevent accidents and spills, 73 percent said elected officials and others in government need to prevent accidents and spills.

    At the Port of St. Helens industrial park in Clatskanie, Oregon — the most frequent destination for oil trains through Oregon accepting three per week — terminal owner Global Partners has announced it will only accept oil in newer model tank cars with added armor. The vast majority of tank cars in use today are an older model long known to be prone to punctures.

    Patrick Trapp, executive director at the Port of St. Helens, said the crude by rail project as helped the port maintain roughly 50 jobs, a significant number for Columbia County, and carries the potential for 30 more. He also said the port favors handling domestic oil headed to a West Coast refinery.

    “This is their business — they want it to be done safely. They expect it to be done safely,” Trapp said. “I can’t speak for other projects across the state or the region, but for our area here it’s been going on for about a year and a half now and they’ve been doing it very responsibly, very methodically.”

    DHM Research poll results also show many people in the Northwest aren’t following the issue of oil train safety. The survey asked people how much they’ve heard or read about oil trains in their state. Across the region, 27 percent residents said “nothing” while another 27 percent said “not much.”

    Horvick said that’s not surprising.

    “For most people across the Northwest region, this isn’t something that’s happening in their backyard,” he said. “For many people who aren’t living in communities with trains passing through this may be out of sight, out of mind.”

    Eric de Place, policy director for the Seattle-based think tank Sightline Institute, draws a connection between how much people know about oil trains and how much they support such projects.

    “What we’ve seen so far is that the more people know about these projects, the less they like them,” De Place said. He said public opinion polls he’s seen tend to show support wanes as the public becomes more informed. “Right now we’re still in a place where most people haven’t heard of the projects or don’t really understand the dynamics around them.”

    The Sightline Institute has examined crude by rail extensively in the Northwest, and has been critical of many projects. An analysis by the institute in May showed the Northwest averages nine freight train derailments per month, most of them minor.

    De Place pointed out that survey respondents specifically supported crude by rail if the oil is being used for domestic purposes, which may not be the case once it reaches refineries. Crude oil exports have been banned for 40 years, but many in Congress have been calling for an end to the ban, which was recently loosened. In 2011, the U.S. exported more petroleum product such as gasoline and diesel than it imported for the first time since 1949.

    The poll also found more people support restricting information about oil train routes to regulators and first responders rather than releasing it to the public.

    That information became the subject of a transparency debate after the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads to provide it to states. Railroads then asked states for nondisclosure agreements. Oregon and Washington both eventually made the information available free of charge after receiving several public records requests. Some states remain undecided.

    When asked whether the public should know for the safety of the community when oil is being shipped on trains through their area, only 34 percent of residents said yes. When asked if only regulators and first responders should know when oil is being shipped on trains through their area to prevent possible attacks, 47 percent of respondents said yes.

    Horvick said those results did surprise him.

    “I would have thought it would have been the reverse,” he said. “”When we do polling on any number of issues that get at the question of transparency and information to the public, the default position for people tends to be the more information the better. That my government shouldn’t hide or prevent me from knowing anything. … But at least framed up this way they’re willing to withhold some information if it is to prevent a possible attack.”

    Support for oil trains was a little higher in Idaho at 64 percent compared with 59 percent support in Oregon and 53 percent support in Washington. Overall, 21 percent of those polled said they don’t know whether they support or oppose the idea of shipping oil by rail.

    Earthfix Survey Oil Trains by State June 2014.  This story originally appeared through the EarthFix public media collaboration.
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