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Oil-by-rail informational event draws officials, skeptics to Linnton

Anti-oil rally held before 'briefing,' presentations


by: MARK MILLER - Matthew Brewer (center), a Federal Railroad Administration official based in Vancouver, Wash., speaks as Mike Greisen (right), chief of the Scappoose Rural Fire District, looks on at a briefing in the Portland neighborhood of Linnton Tuesday, April 29, on the transportation of crude oil by rail.State legislators, fire chiefs and other officials turned out for a “briefing” on oil train rail safety and emergency planning and response at the Linnton rail depot Tuesday, April 29.

The public event was set up as a collaboration between Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office, the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal and the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, with involvement by other local, state and federal agencies, as well as major railroads and contractors.

Protesters prior to the briefing rallied against oil outside the rail depot. Dozens of people held signs, many of which were visible from Highway 30, and encouraged passing motorists to honk in support.

Kitzhaber advisor Karmen Fore and Mariana Ruiz-Temple from the fire marshal’s office opened the briefing at 10 a.m.

“This really is an opportunity for all of us to get educated on the broad array of work as it relates to train safety,” said Fore, who advises the governor on transportation policy. “Today, all of us here represent a broad array of groups.”

County visible at event

Assembled groups of attendees circulated between stations set up by participating agencies and companies to provide information about their role in the transportation of crude oil and other hazardous materials by rail through Oregon.

County Commissioners Henry Heimuller and Tony Hyde were among the attendees, as were state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, three of the county’s fire chiefs and senior Port of St. Helens officials.

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality emergency response planner Don Pettit used a specially marked map of Scappoose to illustrate how his department would react to a potential spill of hazardous materials in a populated area.

“We can use this tool to say, you know, if in downtown Scappoose, there’s a tanker rollover, we need to make sure that somebody is notifying the daycare, the elder care, the schools that are right along the tracks — and hopefully you guys are still OK — and maybe even shut down the public drinking water system,” Pettit remarked to Mike Greisen, chief of the Scappoose Rural Fire District, who attended the event. “So that’s our tool we use for where we don’t have a specific plan.”

Pettit said an incident response map like the one of Scappoose “tries to get us 75 percent of what is in these specific plans.”

Time at each station was limited to about 10 minutes, meaning presentations and question-and-answer sessions were kept relatively brief.

The Portland & Western Railroad, which operates the rail line through Linnton between Portland and Astoria, had a presence at the event, but it was significantly less visible than BNSF Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad.

Patrick Kerr, an executive at Genesee & Wyoming Inc. representing P&W at the briefing, declined comment when approached by the Spotlight.

Presentations to groups

Representatives from BNSF and Union Pacific showed off training equipment used to familiarize first responders with common valves on railway cars, as well as incident response trailers that can be deployed in case of a spill or fire along a rail line.

State officials from agencies such as the Oregon Department of Transportation and DEQ talked about their efforts to both prevent and plan for rail emergencies, while Office of Emergency Management, U.S. Coast Guard, and Portland Fire & Rescue personnel outlined some of their practices for responding to rail incidents.

State OEM Director Dave Stuckey said emergency management services in Oregon use the emergency alert system to broadcast public safety information. Messages from the system can interrupt television and radio programming.

“It’s old, but it works,” Stuckey said.

In the case of an emergency along a rail corridor, such as the one that runs along Highway 30 from Portland to Astoria, Stuckey’s counterparts from Portland and Multnomah County said their agencies would work with emergency responders to determine the best course of action.

“In some cases, your best option might not be to evacuate. It might be to stay where you are,” Portland Bureau of Emergency Management Director Carmen Merlo said. “In the event that there is a need to evacuate, the fire department will help identify an appropriate transportation route out of the area, and they’ll work with local police departments and other transportation bureaus to close off roads and guide people to the evacuation routes.”

“We do constant all-hazard planning,” added Joe Rizzi, director of the Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management. That means the county draws up evacuation maps that can be used in a multitude of emergency situations, not just rail disasters, he explained.

Tim O’Brien, hazardous materials director for Union Pacific, had the largest props of any presenter at the briefing: two DOT-111 railcars, the most common class of tanker car used to transport crude oil in the United States. He outlined the differences between the “legacy” model, built before safety standards adopted in 2011 were implemented, and the newer version of the tanker car — namely the latter’s 1/16-inch-thicker steel shell, semicircular “head shields” on each end of the cylindrical car, and fitting protections to prevent spills in case of derailment.

“In the spirit of continuous improvement, the [Association of American Railroads] is also looking at improving this car even further, actually looking at 9/16ths-of-an-inch-thick steel, which makes this a much thicker car; also looking at a full head shield on the end and a jacket on the car ... so if it does end up in a fire, it will protect that steel for a longer time,” O’Brien said, referring to a new proposal by rail industry groups for the federal government to adopt more stringent standards for the DOT-111.

by: ROBIN JOHNSON - Protesters wave signs at the intersection of Highway 30 and NW Marina Way in Linnton denouncing the movement of oil by rail before the state's briefing on the subject Tuesday, April 29.Protest and response

Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, a community organizer with Hood River-based environmentalist group Columbia Riverkeeper, helped organize the protest rally prior to the briefing.

“Our goal now is to smile and wave at our elected officials,” Zimmer-Stucky said. “We want to remind legislators and government agencies of our concerns.”

Tracy Prescott MacGregor, a resident of the Clatskanie area, spoke of how rail traffic impacts her personally.

“I live near Port Westward,” she said. “I would be affected first-hand by a spill or explosion, and because train cars are being loaded onto barges near wetlands, there is potential devastation to farmland.”

Despite the protest, leaders from Columbia County voiced appreciation for the briefing.

“I think it was very helpful. I think that it was helpful to have this level of mix of federal responders, public safety responders, private sector businesses, that are in the business of augmenting safe rail operations,” said Johnson. “And I think it was very informative to have people have a chance to visit with those folks and learn from them.”

Johnson said she is working with Columbia River Fire & Rescue Chief Jay Tappan, who was also at the briefing, to improve the most populous fire district in Columbia County's ability to respond in case of a disaster.

“[We] got to see some interesting equipment,” Tappan said of the briefing. “That's probably the next step for us is looking at some training and some equipment.”

Johnson and Tappan said they are looking at a number of potential sources for that training and equipment, with Johnson suggesting CRF&R could even purchase military surplus gear to increase its response capabilities.

Heimuller said he was “very impressed” with the presentations he heard at the briefing Wednesday, at a meeting of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.

“I think it was a great first step to bringing folks to kind of realize what services and resources are out there and are available,” Heimuller said. “It sure gave me a lot of questions and a lot of optimism on some of the things that are already in place, but also, some clear ideas on things that it'd sure be nice to see us get enacted and in place up here in the Northwest Corner.”

While Tuesday's briefing was perhaps the largest recent rail safety event in the Portland area, Johnson characterized it as the latest step in a long-term effort.

“A lot of conversations have already started prior to today,” said Johnson. “Today was not catalytic, that everybody woke up and said, 'Gee, we need to do all this stuff.' Today is just another iteration of the ongoing conversation about how do we make this entire system work better and safer.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated.