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Oil Train Preparedness A Gap For Oregon's Hazmat Response

Photo of an oil train headed south through the Deschutes River Gorge Sunday, May 4.
Courtesy of Friends of the Gorge
Photo of an oil train headed south through the Deschutes River Gorge Sunday, May 4.

For seven years, Central Oregon has been without a state hazardous materials team.

It means that in the event of an oil train spill in Deschutes County, the closest team assigned to the area comes from Salem, roughly two and half to three hours away.

An EarthFix analysis of hazmat response times shows infrequent incidents in Central Oregon -- only two in the past three years -- but with an average response time of nearly three hours. That's an hour longer than the average response time for any other county with recorded incidents and an hour longer than the state’s published goal of response times under two hours.

Yet that's where the state's hazmat responders will be most needed if one of the many trains now carrying crude oil through Central Oregon and along the Deschutes River were to derail and spill as trains elsewhere have across the country.

The loss of two state hazmat teams over the years along with the boom in trains carrying oil -- a classified hazardous material -- through Oregon have the state revisiting its goals, according to Mariana Ruiz-Temple, the assistant chief deputy in the Office of State Fire Marshall.

"We as a state are not going to come in and say you have to have one, that's not how that system is set up. But that really is probably a conversation that needs to be had with City of Redmond, City of Bend," Ruiz-Temple said.

Oregon's hazmat teams were established by the state to provide additional response when incidents exceed the capabilities of local fire departments. They are among the state’s most prepared and equipped crews when it comes to handling an incident like a crude oil train derailment. But even Oregon's Hazmat teams are largely unprepared for such an incident. Consider the following:

Some oil train routes through the state are hours away from the nearest hazmat team outpost.

The state does not purchase foam, the most effective tool against a crude-oil fire, for any of its hazmat teams.

Many of the state’s hazmat technicians have not been trained in how to respond to an oil train derailment. The state sends responders to a specialized derailment training facility in Pueblo, Colorado, but has sent just four people there since 2011.

“In Oregon this is something fairly recent so it's making us take a look at what the needs are,” Ruiz-Temple said. Since the uptick in oil by rail, she said, responding to a crude oil train has been the state’s highest priority for training. Crude oil was the focus of the recent state's recent hazmat conference, where nearly 140 local, state and railroad employees learned about the product and reviewed cases of recent train derailments.

The hazmat team that served the area out of Redmond disbanded in 2007; the fire department didn’t have the budget to support something it used so rarely. Since it disbanded, Redmond Fire Chief Tim Moor said, he can’t remember needing to call a hazmat team.

Shipments of hazardous materials were infrequent, but that’s changed. Last year BNSF Railway carried more than 4,300 oil tanker cars through Central Oregon, and along the Deschutes River, last year, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Those cars, likely headed for California refineries, have increased 58 percent since 2011. Before then the shipment of crude by rail was an even rarer practice.

But unlike oil-by-rail routes along the Columbia River, where ships and barges have been transporting petroleum products for years, there are no scattered caches of spill containment boom or hazmat equipment.

BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said the railroad has hazmat technicians and caches of spill containment boom in Southwest Washington -- that could be used to respond to an incident. BNSF also contracts with private companies specializing in hazmat cleanup.

Moor, whose Redmond fire department used to house a regional hazmat team, knows they aren’t his answer if an oil train derails in his district.

“Based on what I've seen, if a train crashes and ignites, a hazmat team is not going to make a difference,” Moor said.

In the event of a spill, one helps, Moor said, but certainly not in a fire.

“The best thing you can do is stay away from them," he said. "But if it crashes or derails in a populated area you have to get everybody out and protect the area to the best of your ability.”

Nationwide, oil trains spilled more than 1.15 million gallons in 2013. That's more than the amount of oil train spillage from the previous 37 years combined. At the end of April, a CSX train in Lynchburg, Virginia, derailed, ignited and spilled 30,000 gallons of crude into the James River. Two weeks later, a Union Pacific train derailed near LaSalle, Colorado, and spilled 6,500 gallons.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has organized a meeting with emergency responders in Bend on Friday to talk about what they need to be prepared for an oil train derailment. Wyden organized a similar meeting in Portland in January.

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