At a briefing held Tuesday at Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s request, oil train safety officials from the public and private sectors answered questions from state lawmakers, tribal and local government leaders and community members about preparing for and responding to derailments and spills.
The briefing was held in northwest Portland’s Linnton Depot along the Columbia River. The site lies along the Portland and Western Railroad line that carries oil trains to the Global Partners oil terminal near Clatskanie, Ore.
The company has applied for a permit to double the number of crude oil shipments it receives every year as train traffic carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields surges across the Northwest and other parts of North America.
Concerns about oil train safety have grown in the wake of several oil train derailments last year, including one last year in Quebec that claimed 47 lives.
Karmen Fore, Gov. Kitzhaber’s transportation advisor, said Tuesday’s event was designed to allow leaders to learn what kind of resources exist to respond to an oil train derailment or oil spill and to identify areas that need improvement.
“We want to make sure everything is done to make sure those trains run as safely as possible,” Fore said. “What are those things we can do here in Oregon to improve train safety? That is important to the governor and to all of us who live here in this state.”
Kitzhaber’s office said the next steps will be to assess Oregon’s programs and resources related to rail safety and make recommendations on areas where action is needed.
Officials from railroad companies, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, federal and state transportation departments, Portland Fire and Rescue and Oregon Office of Emergency Management were stationed around the briefing site. Groups of lawmakers and community leaders moved from one station to the next, asking questions along the way.
Lawmakers asked emergency responders whether they have the equipment they need to respond to an oil train derailment and whether they have the information they need about where oil trains are traveling through the state.
One concern that came up in numerous conversations was the fact that many local emergency responders along the routes of oil trains don’t know when the trains are coming.
“Do you think that information would be helpful to you?” state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, asked Portland Fire and Rescue hazmat officials.
“We’ve developed pre-plans for all these issues,” responded Portland Fire & Rescue Lt. Rich Chatman. “As far as what time of day that stuff is actually traveling on the tracks, we don’t get a notification that at 2 p.m. there’s going to be a train on the tracks because when it comes down to it we really wouldn’t do anything different.”
Last week, the state changed its policy on collecting information about oil train shipments from railroad companies. Kitzhaber has said he wants emergency responders to know where crude oil is moving throughout the state so they can be prepared to respond in case of a derailment. The Oregon Department of Transportation has asked railroad companies to supply annual reports detailing exactly where crude oil and other hazardous material has been transported.
“What we’re doing now is making sure we gather all the information we can from the railroads,” said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman David Thompson. “Earlier we thought an annual report that discusses the leg-by-leg summary of where hazardous material has been moved was not something that we needed, and it’s not required. We’re changing our attitude about that right now.”
After the event, many leaders said the briefing was useful but didn’t answer all of their questions about oil train safety.
“This gave me an opportunity to meet people ask a lot of questions, talk with the railroads some more,” Steiner Hayward said. “I still feel as if I have some concerns as to how we can make sure Oregonians stay safe and expand commerce in our state.”
Gary Burke, board chairman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said he’s still worried about the oil trains that travel through his reservation in Northeast Oregon.
“The information that was given to us was pretty standard,” he said. “But as far as derailment and the hazard that it causes, that hasn’t been addressed yet. You can’t replace a life. You can’t replace the life of the river once it’s damaged by certain hazardous materials. That’s our concern.”
Dan Serres, an opponent of oil train projects with Columbia Riverkeeper, said he doesn’t think the state is prepared to handle a derailment.
“I guess I’m reassured to see these agencies are concerned and talking to each other,” he said. “I’m not reassured about the level of preparedness we have to deal with an incident on the Columbia River.”