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Port commissioners, public grill railroad on plans

G&W executives field questions, talk rail safety at public meeting


by: MARK MILLER - Scappoose resident Wayne Mayo, right, expresses frustration over Genesee & Wyoming Inc.'s reticence to share the details of liability insurance on the Portland & Western Railroad while speaking with G&W executive Patrick Kerr, left, outside the Columbia City Community Hall Wednesday, Feb. 26.Officials from Genesee & Wyoming Inc., the parent company of the Portland & Western Railroad, reported on the railroad's safety efforts and capital projects at a Port Commission meeting for the Port of St. Helens Wednesday, Feb. 26 — and fielded some pointed questions from port commissioners and members of the public alike.

The G&W delegation presented a rosy image of safety at the company's short lines, especially the P&W corridor between Portland and the Port Westward industrial park in north Columbia County on the Astoria Line. But company officials declined to detail the railroad's insurance policies in case an accident does occur.

Commission President Robert Keyser asked the group from G&W if they could divulge information about liability insurance — in essence, who pays for what in the case of a disaster on the rail line, and how much can be paid out.

“That I can't address 100 percent, because it's just not my bailiwick,” said Patrick Kerr, assistant vice president for government affairs at G&W. “Are we adequately insured? Yes. Have we handled all of our bills that we've had, if we've had any kind of issues out there? Yes, we have.”

Port Commissioner Chris Iverson was not satisfied with Kerr's answer.

“I've been trying to get that for a month now,” Iverson said. “Just for the comfort zone of knowing that there's adequate limits available to take care of a catastrophe is extremely important to a lot of people. … The other issue that I want to find out about is pollution liability, because I'm aware that pollution liability is not covered when you're talking about general liability.”

Iverson continued, “I think it's important that you guys disclose that to everyone. I don't know why that's a secret. If there's a huge catastrophe, we're going to find out and discover it in a court of law anyway.”

Kerr demurred.

“I just don't have that information for you,” Kerr said. “I'd be more than happy to take that up the chain, because I do understand where you're coming from.”

But, Kerr added, “For a private entity to come out and say, 'Here's all your insurance' … that just doesn't necessarily happen to any business.”

Iverson said he has heard that answer from G&W before.

“I was a little surprised by that,” Iverson said. “And that's frankly just unacceptable. We need that.”

Port Commissioner Mike Avent sided with Iverson.

“That's an important issue to all of us,” said Avent. “The public needs to know if they're covered.”

Kerr also said a federal order requiring more stringent classification of crude oil being transported by train issued Tuesday will not change operations on the P&W.

“It's not going to make a difference in the volatility level,” said Kerr. “It's going to be still placarded. … We handle that correctly. So that won't make a difference in how we handle our trains.”

The P&W carries light crude oil between Portland and Port Westward. Officials at the meeting said 89 percent of tank cars used on that run this year were constructed to modern specifications — although virtually all are of the DOT-111 model that has come under scrutiny following several recent explosions and oil spills on trains in the United States and Canada.

Members of the public were able to ask questions of the G&W officials during and after the railroad safety presentation.

Outside the Columbia City Community Hall, where the Port Commission meeting was held Wednesday, St. Helens resident Annie Christensen asked whether the railroad could hold a public forum to hear from members of the public.

While Shannon Elston, G&W's regional vice president of transportation, sounded open to the idea, Kerr was skeptical. He said he was concerned such a forum would be consumed with “railroad-bashing.”

Despite their dissatisfaction with some of the G&W officials' answers, Iverson, Christensen and others said they appreciated their efforts to be accessible Wednesday.

“I think you guys have been more open in the last two years than I've ever seen you, and I really appreciate it,” said Iverson. “For the most part, you've been very open and honest, and I appreciate that.”

Kerr and Elston also talked about P&W safety practices at the meeting. To avoid accidents, trains carrying hazardous materials are never left unattended and a truck goes ahead of every such train to make sure the tracks are clear, Elston said. The railroad is also planning a series of infrastructure upgrades this year, he added.