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Oil Spill Task Force Braces For More Crude By Rail

Reports show three oil trains a week pass through Oregon on the way to the Global Pacific oil terminal near Clatskanie, and additional oil trains pass through central and southern Oregon on their way to California once a week.
Tony Schick
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Reports show three oil trains a week pass through Oregon on the way to the Global Pacific oil terminal near Clatskanie, and additional oil trains pass through central and southern Oregon on their way to California once a week.

A regional oil spill task force met in Portland Wednesday to discuss the risks of crude oil traveling by rail.

The coordinates oil spill response plans among five U.S. states and B.C. A lot of its members have noticed the same worrisome trend: more crude oil is traveling by rail cars instead of arriving on ships, and many agencies aren't prepared for oil spills along rail lines.

Dale Jensen is the oil spill program manager for the state of Washington. He says his state is well-prepared for oil spills in the marine environment, but it's scrambling to improve its ability to respond to inland oil spills now that more and more oil is traveling by rail.

"It isn't just about marine anymore," he said. "Three years ago it wasn't even on peoples' horizon that oil would be moved by rail, and all of a sudden it's just exponentially moving so so quickly."

Jensen outlined a new plan for improving rail safety that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Wednesday. The plan calls for new railroad fees to pay for additional rail inspectors and safer railroad crossings, as well as assurances that railroads will take financial responsibility for the damages if there is a spill.

The governor's list of recommendations responds to the findings of a state oil transportation study, which found some areas of the state's oil spill response plans are lacking – particularly for inland areas.

"We recognized that on the inland side we have gaps," Jensen said. "There are gaps in our response preparedness capability. There are gaps in the level of training our first responders need. There are gaps in the type of equipment that is most appropriate to be able to respond."

Task force members from Oregon and California said they're facing the same challenge.

Dick Pedersen, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, says his agency has spent decades getting ready for an oil spill from a ship. It hasn't spent as much time preparing for an oil spill from a train because there hasn't been much oil traveling by rail until now.

"There's no question the volume is increasing," he said. "If there is a derailment – and I dearly hope there isn't – we have to be ready, and one thing I'm worried about is that we're not fully ready for that."

Oregon DEQ does regular drills with marine-related industries and federal agencies to practice responding to an oil spill from a ship, Pedersen said. The state has caches of response materials such as booms and dispersants and a command center that oversees the response to marine oil spill incidents.

"I would say the states and federal government need to make sure we have something similar for the inland environment," Pedersen said. "We need to make sure we have enough caches of additional equipment readily available in case there is a spill. I'm pretty sure we don't have enough."

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber released a report in July identifying gaps in his state's readiness to handle an oil train derailment. That report also calls for assessing fees on railroads to pay for additional rail safety inspectors and training for first responders.

Thomas Cullen of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the task force how his state recently passed legislation requiring a 6.5-cent-per-barrel tax on crude oil to help improve its oil spill response plans for the inland environment.

"We're well protected in the marine environment," he said. "But we have gaps on the inland portion of the state."

The state is now expecting about $11 million in additional revenue to pay for 38 more employees who can investigate and respond to oil spills that aren't on the coast.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minnesota explained the process he and other lawmakers went through to pass a similar bill in his state after an oil train derailed and exploded in Casselton, North Dakota, just 20 miles west of the Minnesota border.

"There was real urgency," he said. "We have eight trains per day coming through Minnesota. We're at the geographic epicenter of this issue."

The new Minnesota law adds a state tax to oil trains and pipelines to pay for two additional rail inspectors, one hazardous materials inspector, improvements in railroad crossings and additional training and equipment for first responders.

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Cassandra Profita