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New Oil Train Safety Rules Approved In Oregon

File photo of oil train tankers in a Portland railyard.
Tony Schick/OPB
File photo of oil train tankers in a Portland railyard.

The Oregon Transportation Commission adopted new rules Friday requiring railroads to increase the amount of information they share with state officials. Months in the making, the rules come in response to concerns over the state’s readiness for oil train spills and fires.

Emergency responders will now get immediate notification from railroads for incidents involving hazardous materials. Those notifications include information about the type, quantity and placement of any materials on the train.

Railroads now must file quarterly reports with the Oregon Department of Transportation detailing shipments of hazardous materials. ODOT will in turn share those reports with emergency responders. The new rules specify the information is to be released under the state’s public records law, but allow some exemptions for trade secrets.

Another rule authorizes the assessment of penalties up to $1,000 for each day railroads don’t comply.

Oregon's previous rules "were just brutally out of date," Oregon Rail Administrator Hal Gard said. "They really hadn’t been updated in 30 years, and really hadn’t kept up with changes in federal law."

Mass shipments of crude oil caught state and local officials off guard when they began moving to Northwest ports and refineries in 2012. Emergency responders throughout Oregon and Washington said they lacked the equipment, training and funding they needed to be ready for an oil train derailment. A few years ago, no trains of exclusively crude oil moved through the state. Now, as many as 15 trains per week carry oil through the Columbia River Gorge.

"It caught the entire nation by surprise. I'm not handing myself an excuse — we were caught flat-footed — but the rest of the nation was too." Gard said. "It was new business and it took us a while to react."

Gard said the surge in oil train traffic also prompted the state to hire four new inspectors to cover track maintenance, operating practices, train signals and hazardous materials.

When oil train shipments began, firefighters and environmental regulators complained of getting little information about what was moving and when from railroads, who have lobbied for concealing such information and fought its disclosure under claims of trade secrets and security.

Gard said the agency received little feedback from the public during several public hearings on the regulations, but he said ODOT attempted to balance the railroads' concerns over public disclosure with the public's right to information.

Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, said the company is still reviewing Oregon's new regulations but "shares the state’s commitment to ensuring we safely move all of the commodities that we carry, including crude oil.

"Our philosophy and practice for crude by rail is that we must prevent incidents from happening, mitigate their severity and mobilize effective, efficient response," Wallace said.

Efforts to address oil train safety began in response to several derailments in the U.S. and Canada involving large spills and fires, most notably a derailment and explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that increased fees for the state’s oil spill prevention program and devoted money for the State Fire Marshall acquire equipment and coordinate response plans for oil train incidents. The Washington Legislature approved a bill that directed oil taxes toward rail spill planning and imposed public disclosure requirements for railroads operating in Washington.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled sweeping rules in May calling for stronger tank cars, better brakes, slower speed limits and possibly new routes for oil trains. Those rules came one day after Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced a wide-ranging bill addressing oil train safety.

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