‘Time warp’ for oil train safety

Repost from The Oregonian

By Rob Davis The Oregonian
January 24, 2014
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley met Friday at Portland Fire & Rescue headquarters with railroad companies and first responders, saying reforms are needed to address dangers in Oregon from trains hauling potentially explosive crude oil.  (Rob Davis/The Oregonian)

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley met Friday in Portland with railroad companies, emergency responders and public officials to deliver a clear message: The two Oregon Democrats take oil train safety seriously and believe more needs to be done to protect the state’s residents.

Last year, 110 trains passed through Portland each carrying dozens of cars filled with potentially explosive crude oil from North Dakota. They’re moving the same type of oil that was involved in three high-profile explosions since July, including one in Quebec that killed 47 people and leveled part of a town.

The hour-long meeting Wyden organized at Portland Fire & Rescue headquarters demonstrated the senators’ concern about oil train safety and allowed them to hear directly from first responders. But it also reinforced a festering issue for oil trains.

While there’s been a lot of talk about making them safer, there isn’t much to show for it.

Oil still moves with lighter regulation on trains than if it were transported in traditional ways, such as oil tankers. Despite pledges, railroad companies have been slow to provide state officials with information about oil train routes, their frequency and emergency response plans. Rail companies are resisting legislative efforts to increase those disclosures in Washington state.

Ron Wyden talks about safety concerns with oil trainsSen. Ron Wyden discusses his concerns about oil trains currently shipping potentially explosive crude through Oregon. Wyden says reforms are needed to ensure oil train risks are addressed.

“Too many Oregon communities believe that the safety and public disclosure rules for transporting this oil are stuck in a time warp,” Wyden said. “We’re going to have to strike a better balance between information sharing and security.”

Friday’s meeting yielded some suggestions for improvement. Terry Moss, the St. Helens police chief, said 911 dispatchers there don’t know when mile-long oil trains are passing through his community and blocking crossings for minutes at a time. Dispatchers currently can’t help police and fire responders route around trains, Moss said.

But it also struck out on familiar questions, like how long it would take to phase out thousands of old oil tank cars first identified as safety risks in 1991. Rail companies said they didn’t know.

Wyden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has promised an investigation and said he would track oil train safety until reforms are chaptered in law.

“The Senate is going to bird-dog this,” Wyden said. “This is not something that’s just going to be debated for a few weeks – we’re going to stay at this until it gets fixed.”