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ODOT says oil train shipments on the rise

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - ODOT says shipments of oil by rail could increase in the next few months.SALEM — Union Pacific railway plans to increase shipments of oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation through the Columbia River Gorge, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The notice, which ODOT Rail and Public Transit Division Administrator Hal Gard said the state received on Thursday, means the railway could increase shipments through the Gorge by as much as 3 million gallons or more per month.

Gard told the Oregon Transportation Commission during a briefing Thursday that the state had just received notice that morning that Union Pacific planned to haul up to three train loads of Bakken oil per month through the corridor. Under a 2014 order by the U.S. Department of Transportation, railways must notify state emergency officials of estimated weekly Bakken oil-by-rail shipments that are 1 million gallons or larger, the equivalent of approximately 35 tank cars. Railways only file the reports when the volume increases or decreases 25 percent from the previous report.

An ODOT spokeswoman said earlier this year convention wisdom was that oil-by-rail shipments through Oregon slackened this year, although Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Union Pacific trains carried 24,199 carloads of crude oil, natural gas and natural gasoline on Oregon rail lines in 2014. That was a 340 percent increase from 5,491 carloads in 2012, according to data from ODOT.

John Johnson, manager of the transportation agency’s Rail Safety Section, wrote in an email that Union Pacific’s actual weekly estimate filed this week was that between zero and one oil-by-rail shipments of at least 1 million gallons will pass through the Columbia River Gorge. The state Fire Marshal’s Office posts the federal notices on its website, but had not posted the latest Union Pacific notice by Friday afternoon.

Gard said during the Oregon Transportation Commission meeting that the increase in Union Pacific oil-by-rail shipments will provide an opportunity to put into practice the new rules the state adopted over the summer. For example, the state now requires railways to file quarterly reports on hazardous materials shipments and immediately notify first responders about “incidents involving hazardous materials,” according to ODOT. The state also hired more rail inspectors earlier this year in response to concerns about the oil shipments.

Francisco Castillo, a spokesman for Union Pacific’s western region, said the railway will move up to three “unit trains,” or single commodity trains, of Bakken oil through Oregon, Washington and Idaho starting as early as next week. Castillo said crude oil accounted for approximately 1 percent of Union Pacific’s freight car loads in 2014, and roughly 2 percent of the company’s freight shipments through Oregon were oil.

Castillo said he could not provide any information on the destination of the Bakken oil shipments or the reason for the increase.

“We just transport the commodity at the request of the customer,” Castillo said.

Castillo said the railway follows “strict safety practices” and “regardless of what we’re hauling, safety is our highest concern.”

Hillary Borrud is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.