As a young man I worked summers for the U.S. Forest Service in the Mt. Hood National Forest just east of Bonneville Dam at Eagle Creek on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. Commonly, there were brush-grass fires alongside the railroad tracks caused by freight trains moving through the Gorge.
Forest Service employees like myself, with shovels and axes, were sent to fight those fires; no railroad help was ever dispatched to a scene I attended. Essentially, then, federal taxpayers paid the cost of fighting fires originating from defective railroad equipment. An important difference between then and now is what those railroad cars carry as their pay load these days and the number of tanker cars in these very long oil trains.
Nothing much has changed in the relationship between public agencies and the current oil trains traveling in the Columbia Gorge. Iit is about time Oregon’s state and national lawmakers get involved in efforts to protect us. Fires will be set by railroad engines and the cars they pull while new recommendations for oil-train safety issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have now declared the lack of readiness in the Pacific Northwest for high risks posed by rail tanker cars, carrying potentially explosive crude from North Dakota.
Statistics tell us that last year alone, well over 100 oil trains carrying North Dakota crude passed through Portland and rural towns on the Columbia River en route to Port Westward, a terminal site near Clatskanie. Meanwhile, state regulators have been caught flat-footed by their arrival and only recently have begun to stir a bit from their naps.
A couple of reality-based scenarios should be acted on from NTSB recommendations. If a catastrophic oil-train spill happens today in Oregon, state taxpayers will get stuck with the cleanup bill: regulatory loopholes, the NTSB has disclosed, allow railroads to just walk away from disasters they have caused and that’s nothing new. Then there are the obvious related costs in lives lost, destruction of property and environmental damages.
Railroads are not required to plan for catastrophes like the July 6 oil train crash in Quebec in which 47 people were killed, part of the town was incinerated, and a million and a half gallons of crude were left for the surviving inhabitants to address. The railroads are not required now to demonstrate that they have sufficient caches of emergency equipment to contain disasters like the ones that followed explosions in North Dakota and Alabama in 2013.
Federal law requires detailed worst-case emergency plans only when shipping more than 42,000 gallons of oil in a single package. However, the oil now in miles-long oil-trains finds each rail car holds less than 42,000 gallons, and, you guessed it, thereby the railroads avoid legal requirements for safe design.
The NTSB has said that railroads should re-route oil-trains around sensitive and populated areas when feasible. But if you, the reader, knows the lay of the land along the Columbia River’s route—past Portland along the river’s channel to Astoria—you know that there is no feasible alternate railroad route. This is true on the Washington side of the river, too.
Just look at the facts of the route to Port Westward. Oil trains moving North Dakota crude travel through cities like Rainier, Scappoose and St. Helens, bisecting a main street in Rainier, schools in Scappoose and within 100 feet of homes in St. Helens. There is no rail line that avoids those towns while the same goes for the route on the other side of the river.
Of course, we can blithely enjoy business as usual and trust that no accident, big or small, will occur. This hope and prayer as the mainstay, while the number of daily trains increases and the railroads, left to their own maintenance schedules and wholly inadequate disaster response ability, look, when left to their own devices, as we know the case from experience, to profit-making before any other consideration.
It’s high time our congressional delegation gets with the program of addressing these railroad safety issues although if we had a governor, who had an interest in anything other than Archimedes, reducing benefits to state retirees, and the CRC, he’d be standing on the front line to defend us. The inevitable is going to occur and if Oregon is not ready there could be liability consequences lasting years with negative impacts to the state’s economy, not to mention the end of anything but blackened terrain, ugly scars and dead zones to greet the eye along the once pristine Columbia River.
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)