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Q&A: Preparing For More Oil Trains Coming To The Northwest

Emergency responders are preparing for a higher risk of oil spills in the Northwest. Numerous companies are making plans to ship more crude oil by rail to Oregon and Washington.

More oil trains mean more potential for derailments and oil spills. Dozens of emergency responders from around the region met in Portland Tuesday to address the issue.

EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita attended the meeting and joins us to talk about it.

How many more oil trains are we talking about?

Nationwide, from last year to this year, there’s been a 50 percent increase in the amount of petroleum and crude oil traveling by rail – as opposed to in a pipeline – thanks to a major boom in oil production in North Dakota. In the Northwest, there are proposals to deliver more oil by rail in Clatskanie, in Grays Harbor Washington. Several up in northwest Washington where Tesoro, Shell, Phillips 66 and BP have refineries. And the biggest of the bunch is at the Port of Vancouver which would bring in trains with up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil a day.

Are emergency responders worried about all these oil trains heading our way?

It seems like there is a growing sense of concern. One official said he lies awake at night wondering what would happen if one of these mile-long oil trains fell into the Columbia River. Emergency responders want to know what’s going to happen in that case. So yesterday they called in representatives from oil companies and railroads to talk it through.

Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Tim Callister told me, the idea was to meet the people in the industry to talk about the risks in a non-threatening environment:  “You don’t want to meet somebody for the first time under an emergency situation. You want to meet them for the second or third time. So if there is an accident, we’re on much stronger footing.”

So, they all got together and walked through exactly who would do what in a worst-case scenario.

What did that look like?

It was pretty interesting. They took a hypothetical situation: A mile-long unit train traveling along the Columbia River has derailed. Four of the oil cars – carrying 116,000 gallons of crude oil – have fallen into the river. Right from the start there’s a question about who’s first to respond.

Here’s EPA official Josie Clark explaining: “Sometimes the public might be calling 911 because of the noise before the conductor is going to have an assessment in. 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 were some of the other issues that came up?

As they walked through response, Callister of the Coast Guard prodded everyone with questions. Here’s an example.

This is after Burlington Northern Railroad explained that they would have people responding as soon as they heard the train cars were in the river: “So, we’ve got people coming. Now, what are the hazards to the first responders? What are the risks? … So we’ve got fire, explosion, we’ve talked about inhalation hazards with benzene.”

Benzene is a carcinogen that is released from oil. So issues with worker safety came up. Another big one was whether to stop shipping traffic on the Columbia River. That would have a huge economic impact.

What was the outcome of all this?

There are a lot of variables that will affect who responds and how. But in the end, a lot of officials said they walked away with a better understanding of what role the railroads would play in a derailment or oil spill. And now they know who they’ll be working with if there is an accident.

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