Another Oregon town calls for stricter rules on crude by rail

Repost from The Dalles Chronicle

The Dalles joins oil train debate

By RaeLynn Ricarte, January 29, 2015
A UNION Pacific freight train runs west along First Street, downtown The Dalles. The City of The Dalles has joined other Oregon and Washington cities in requesting greater federal oversight of oil train transports.
A UNION Pacific freight train runs west along First Street, downtown The Dalles. The City of The Dalles has joined other Oregon and Washington cities in requesting greater federal oversight of oil train transports. Photo by Mark Gibson.

The Dalles City Council has joined Hood River, Mosier and other Oregon towns in urging state officials to pursue greater federal regulation of crude oil transports.

The resolution approved by a unanimous vote Monday, Jan. 26, also recommends that rules be put in place to require that rail companies pay for damages caused by catastrophic fire and explosions following a derailment or accident.

Councilor Dan Spatz asked to have the issue put on the agenda, but was not at the Jan. 26 meeting.

The initial resolution, which is a formal expression of the council’s opinion, did not mention finances. However, local conservationist John Nelson, who has been pursuing action regarding oil trains at the city level, gained agreement from city officials to have the language included. “It’s a very complicated issue,” said Nelson, who provided the council with two news articles about the potential dangers of having oil shipped via railroad.

He said a 2013 derailment in Quebec, Canada, that killed 47 people ended up costing $2.7 billion in cleanup, damages and settlements.

The Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge has become the Pacific Northwest’s major railroad avenue for moving oil -— about 18 trains weekly — from North Dakota to shipping terminals.

Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad carries Bakken crude from North Dakota that is extracted from underground rock formations and is reportedly more flammable than traditional crude.

Environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, are seeking greater regulation of oil transports given the potential for an increase in shipments with North America on track to lead the world in oil production within five years.

Councilor Taner Elliott was unsure that the city’s resolution, which is non-binding, would be as solid an approach as sending a letter requesting details about safety measures to railroad companies, gorge legislators and state officials.

He said the city could ask for a briefing about what measures would be taken if an emergency occurred and to be kept abreast of new safety standards.

He said conversations with BNSF and Union Pacific, which operates on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, revealed “staggering numbers” tied to their respective prevention and emergency response plans.

“It appears they are very involved,” said Elliott, who did not provide specifics about what he had learned.

Representatives from both railroad companies said Wednesday that they had not been invited to Monday’s council meeting to answer questions or address safety issues.

Nelson told the council that the city’s resolution would let state officials know they was concerned about the welfare of citizens, as well as the environment in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. He said there was no local source for the foam that was necessary to extinguish flames if an explosion occurred.

He said travel to and from Portland for that product could delay response time, which would further threaten human life or resources.

In addition, he said local fire departments did not have the manpower or equipment to fight a catastrophic fire.

At Monday’s meeting Mayor Steve Lawrence said, once the resolution was approved, the Community Outreach Team could follow up by voicing concerns during a visit to Salem in the spring.

Tim Schechtel, a downtown property owner in The Dalles, said the oil boom in America had created an “unprecedented” risk for communities along railroad tracks.

According to information obtained last year by a Chronicle reporter, oil is traditionally delivered via pipelines, but the growth in U.S. and Canadian production has exceeded what they can carry.

That has caused oil transport by rail to increase from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013.

Schechtel said oil unit trains were more than one-mile long with 100 cars and the potential to carry three million gallons of crude.

According to BNSF, 18 unit oil trains travel through the gorge each week. Schechtel said that put 54 million gallons of crude near residential communities.

“A lot of people are chiming in on this, nationally as well as locally,” he said.

Schechtel said the bigger picture was that fossil fuels contributed to global warming and acid rain around the world. So it was not too much to ask big oil companies, which were making huge profits, to better protect the public safety.

Councilor Linda Miller asked Schectel to expand upon his statements about the problems caused by the use of petroleum products.

“So, do you want to stop all oil trains coming through or just to make things safer?” she asked.

“I think just make safer at this time,” said Schectel, who felt the issue of pollution should be addressed at some point in the future.

“The bottom line is, if we had a catastrophe, it would be overwhelming,” said Lawrence.