EUGENE, Ore. — Local fire chiefs joined Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley on Monday in their push to expand proposed federal safety rules for oil trains.
For months, the senators have been arguing the federal Department of Transportation’s safety efforts shortchange emergency responders on information about what hazardous materials are moving through their community. Fire chiefs from the Eugene area shared these concerns and more at a roundtable discussion with railroads, elected officials and the deputy administrator of the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Earlier this month, the DOT issued a much-anticipated proposal for new safety rules in response to fiery oil train derailments. The proposed rules would phase out old and puncture-prone tank cars, reduce oil train speeds through communities and require railroads to have emergency response plans and to share information about shipments with communities.
The threshold for many of these rules — including who gets notified and when — is shipments of at least one million gallons, which is more than 30 tank cars.
Several Oregon fire chiefs explained they are drastically underprepared for derailments much smaller than the threshold used in the draft rules.
Some chiefs reported as little as a few hundred gallons of the foam used to suppress fuel fires. Thousands of gallons would be needed to fight a flaming tank car. Others said only one or two of their firefighters have been trained in responding to a railroad fire or spill.
“One tank car on fire would be a very significant event for any fire department in this room,” said Terry Ney, chief of Lane Fire Authority.
“We would agree with you,” said Tim Butters, Deputy Administrator for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “When you have something as large as 30,000 gallons, that’s a tall order for most fire departments.”
Butters, a former fire chief in Fairfax, Virginia, encouraged those in attendance to comment formally on the proposed rules. The public comment period closes Sept. 30.
The rules also apply primarily to Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. Oil from Canada and Utah — potentially more difficult to cleanup if it spills — moves through Eugene and other parts of Oregon.
Merkley said the limitations on the scope of the rule are “absurd” and that he has yet to see a good explanation for them.
“Communities don’t know when those trains are coming through, they don’t have a manifest for the trains, they don’t have foam pre-stockpiled. They don’t know who else is nearby and has the appropriate ability to respond,” he said. “There’s a huge deficit in preparation for this type of emergency.”