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Emergency Responders Prepare For Higher Risk Of Oil Spills In The Northwest

Several companies have proposed shipping more crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the Northwest.

Several companies have proposed shipping more crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the Northwest.

Katie Campbell

Updated Nov. 20, 2013

Northwest emergency responders gathered Tuesday in Portland to discuss the increased potential for oil spills in the region.

Several oil-by-rail projects have been proposed in Washington state. The largest of those would be built at the Port of Vancouver if it is approved.

Capt. Sean MacKenzie is the deputy sector commander for the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Columbia River. He says those projects represent a significant increase in the amount of crude oil traveling by rail through the region.

“That means there’s physically more trains coming,” he says. “There’s physically more oil getting transferred to barges on the water and so the potential of a spill is greater when you have a larger volume coming in.”

Bruce Gilles is a cleanup program manager for Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. He says he’s worried about the potential for an oil train derailment.

“I lay in bed at night sometimes,” he says. “I get concerned about a landslide putting an entire oil train into the Columbia River.”

The group of about 60 responders discussed a scenario in which a mile-long unit oil train derailed and four tank cars containing 160,000 gallons of oil fell into the Columbia River.

Who calls 9-1-1?

“Sometimes the public might be calling 9-1-1 because of the noise before the conductor is going to have an assessment in,” Josie Clark of the Environmental Protection Agency explained after some discussion. “The train stops, they go check it out, but they’ve got to walk up to a mile of the train before they call it into their dispatch.”

What does the railroad do in that situation?

According to Pat Brady, assistant director of hazardous materials for BNSF Railway, his company would deploy oil spill responders before before anyone knew whether the cars were leaking oil.

“If you wait to find out, you’re going to take too long,” Brady said. “There’s already going to be a delay built into the process of knowing you have cars in the river, travel time for your responders to get to the scene. So you don’t have time.”

oil spill response
Josie Clark of the EPA and Lt. Cmdr. Tim Callister of
the U.S. Coast Guard leading a discussion about the
response to a hypothetical oil train derailment.
Credit: Cassandra Profita

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Tim Callister, who was leading the discussion, asked the next question:

“So, we’ve got people coming. We can pretty much guarantee that the responsible party, the railroad track owner, has launched its contractors and they’re going to start taking action. Now, what are the hazards to the first responders? What are the risks?”

One by one, people in the audience called out: “Explosion,” “fire,” and “inhalation exposures.”

Callister directed another question to Coast Guard Capt. MacKenzie:

“Captain, you’ve got four rail cars in the water – over 100,000 gallons of oil in the water – what are your concerns for the waterway?”

One big question in this scenario, MacKenzie said, is whether to close the river to shipping traffic.

“With the economics of the Columbia River, I think everybody knows there’s significant pressure to keep the waterway open,” he said. “If you’re going to try to deploy boom, you don’t want ships transiting back and forth in some kind of haphazard manner. It has to be an organized, deliberate decision.”

How fast will spilled oil travel? How long will it take for responders to get to the site? Who’s in charge? A lot of those answers will depend on where the spill takes place, the group concluded.

In wrapping up the talk, Gilles said he learned a lot from the session, and “hopefully we won’t have to use it.”

Tuesday’s meeting included emergency responders from the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, Oregon, Washington and Idaho environmental agencies, railroads and oil companies.

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