Oil Trains In The Northwest

A Month After Mosier Derailment, New Rules To Improve Safety Of Oil Trains

By Tony Schick (OPB)
Portland, Oregon July 13, 2016 11:45 p.m.
A plume of smoke rises from where a train carrying crude oil derailed in Mosier, near Hood River, on Friday afternoon.

A plume of smoke rises from where a train carrying crude oil derailed in Mosier, near Hood River, on Friday afternoon.

Courtesy of Columbia Riverkeeper


More than a month after a Union Pacific Railroad oil train derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge, rules are in the works to increase the safety of oil by rail.

On the same day the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed rules requiring railroads to improve their spill response planning and transparency, Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden introduced their second bill tackling oil train safety.

The senators' first bill sought to encourage the phase-out of old and dangerous tank cars while boosting resources for emergency responders. This time they aim to enforce a safety standard for crude oil volatility and improve investigations in the aftermath of oil train fires and spills.

The Mandate Oil Spill Inspections and Emergency Rules (MOSIER) Act would do three things:

- Require National Transportation Safety Board investigations into major oil train derailments, and allocate $2 million for additional agency staffing.

- Give the Federal Railroad Administration the authority for oil train moratoriums in the wake of derailments.

- Require the U.S. Department of Transportation to set a standard for the volatility of crude oil, which can contain flammable gasses like propane or butane

Merkley said he was surprised to discover after the Mosier derailment that Union Pacific controlled much of the information in the Federal Railroad Administration's investigation.

"If we want to have credibility with the public that the investigation is thorough, that the issues it's turned up are to be addressed, it has to be an independent investigation, not one controlled by the rail line," Merkley said.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden respond to concerns over Portland air pollution.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden respond to concerns over Portland air pollution.

Cassandra Profita, OPB / EarthFix

Wyden and Merkley previously questioned why the National Transportation Safety Board did not investigate Mosier and joined Oregon Governor Kate Brown and other local leaders calling for a moratorium on oil train traffic in the gorge.

"What we're saying loud and clear to the people of Oregon and those across the country that are affected by this, is 'Colonel Sanders should not be guarding the chicken coop,'" Wyden said.

Their bill, named for a  derailment that caused a spill and fire in the Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Oregon, comes after revelations about inadequate rail inspections and lagging emergency preparations for oil trains in the gorge.

Under the U.S. Department of Transportation rules proposed Wednesday, railroads hauling crude oil would be required to develop comprehensive plans for dealing with a significant oil spill, including providing detailed information to state and tribal authorities.

Oil is often transported in trains with as many as 100 tank cars at a time. At least 27 oil trains have derailed in the U.S. and Canada in the last decade, often leading to fiery explosions and extensive environmental damage.

Railroads would have to provide notification of all shipments of flammable liquids. Previously, such notifications were only required for Bakken crude oil. Ethanol and other types of oil were not included.

Local authorities have complained in the past that they've been unable to obtain information or there have been delays in obtaining information from railroads. When an earlier DOT order required the notification for Bakken crude shipments, the railroad industry sought confidentiality agreements with states and fought to prevent the release of the information.

The proposal also includes a new testing method for shippers to determine the volatility of oil shipments.

The proposed rule would "hold industry accountable to plan and prepare for the worst-case scenario," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

The Association of American Railroads said in a statement that it is reviewing the 217-page proposal, and that railroads already have response plans in place.

Also on Wednesday, Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici introduced The Hazardous Materials Rail Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2016, which mirrors a bill previously introduced into the Senate by Wyden and Merkley in 2015.

“Day after day residents, businesses, and communities near rail lines wonder if an oil train accident will happen in their backyard,” Bonamici said in a statement. “It’s time to give residents more peace of mind by getting unsafe tank cars off the tracks.”

Those bills would encourage the phase-out of old and dangerous tank cars while generating funding for local first responders. The legislation would create a fee on older tank cars with known safety risks, such as the puncture-prone DOT-111. Money collected from those fees would be distributed to communities along oil train routes to help them prepare for future oil train spills and fires.

The bill has the endorsement of the International Association of Fire Fighters, whose president called it “an important step forward to protect our communities and their citizens from the dangers of flammable cargo.”

Earlier this week, safety officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said progress to replace the country’s fleet of old tank cars has been slow, and that leaving upgrades to industry is problematic.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.