The demand for petroleum products isn’t disappearing anytime soon, and neither are Western Washington’s oil refineries or the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana. Until all that changes, Northwest residents and first responders will have to grapple with trains bringing oil through environmentally sensitive areas like the Columbia River Gorge.
As part of those efforts, governments and railroads need to heighten their efforts to assure the public that the volatile cargo is being transported safely. The public has its eyes wide open after 16 cars of a 96-car Union Pacific oil train derailed in the Gorge town of Mosier, Ore., between The Dalles and Hood River. Four of the cars caught fire, spewing black smoke above the town of 400 and forcing about 100 people to evacuate. The town shut down its wastewater treatment plant and sewer system.
It’s been noted repeatedly that it could have been worse — actually, catastrophic. The cars went off the track in an area that is set back a bit from the river; much of the track hugs the river’s shoreline, and a fiery oil spill could well have befouled one of America’s iconic waterways. As it is, some oil has seeped into the river. The notorious Gorge winds were calm that day and didn’t spread flames onto the other train cars, into the town or out to the arid underbrush, where the fire could have spread quickly. No injuries have been reported.
The proclamation by the town’s fire chief that the flames could have flared all the way to railroad headquarters in Nebraska is no doubt hyperbole intended to have an effect, but you get the idea. To see what could have been, consider the 2013 oil-train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and caused an estimated $1.2 billion in damage. The Associated Press reports at least 26 major fires or derailments involving oil trains have occurred in the United States and Canada in the past decade.
Union Pacific trains run on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, while Burlington Northern Santa Fe operates on the Washington side. Oil trains regularly move through Washington’s major population centers, including Spokane, Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Tacoma, Seattle and Everett.
The Oregonian reported that Union Pacific had run only three oil trains a month through Oregon, while BNSF averages two oil trains a day — or about 60 a month — on its tracks. The empty cars from Western Washington frequently return to the Midwest through Stampede Pass and the Yakima Valley. Oil isn’t the only hazardous substance rolling through the state’s communities; the railroads also transport cargo like chlorine, ammonia and ethanol.
The issue has caught the attention of the railroads and lawmakers. This state’s Legislature last year passed a bipartisan bill that mandates weekly advance notice to emergency responders of coming oil trains. BNSF says that in 2015, it trained more than 900 first responders in Washington. However, Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon voiced concerns to Northwest Public Radio that the training budget is far less than what is needed; funding comes from an oil tax that varies with petroleum prices, which are on the low side right now.
And responder training doesn’t stop a derailment, as proven in Mosier. A Union Pacific spokeswoman says a fastener between a railroad tie and the line could have failed, but that hasn’t been determined definitively. If that turns out to be the case, then the industry and regulators must step up their inspection procedures to determine how to prevent a repeat of what happened in Mosier.
Another issue is the ability of railroad cars to withstand rupture in event of derailments. The railroads are phasing out older, less safe cars in favor of newer, safer ones; the cars in Mosier were modern models. But four still caught fire, so the replacements haven’t resolved all the problems. Also, Northwest Public Radio reported a special foam designed to suppress oil fires was less effective than intended because the volatile Bakken crude burns at a higher temperature than other types of oil.
Even more trains will rumble through the Gorge if a proposed oil-by-rail terminal in the Port of Vancouver, which would be the nation’s largest, wins approval. It might not get that approval now, given the jitters that the Mosier derailment has wrought.
And whether the new terminal happens or not, there is much to be evaluated — track inspections, car safety, first-responder notice and training — to assure the public is being protected. Railroads need to respond to public sensitivity on this issue, and governments have to ensure that first responders are ready.