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Lawmakers target crude oil, ethanol rail shipments in new legislation

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduce new rules for oil-by-rail transports

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to increase safety regulations for transporting crude oil and other hazardous materials like ethanol.

BONAMICI Bonamici's bill, The Hazardous Materials Rail Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2016, would provide millions in annual grant funding for some communities to relocate train tracks that handle large volumes of hazardous materials. It also proposes fees for rail companies that do not use the newest, upgraded tanker car designs, while incentivizing them with tax breaks to upgrade to the safest models.

The per-car fees would start at $175 per shipment and increase annually. Revenue from fees would fund clean up costs after rail accidents, as well as $45 million in grants over three years for first responders in cities where large shipments of hazardous materials take place.

Fees would also be expected to fund $100 million in grants over four years to reroute rail tracks.

The legislation heavily mirrors legislation by the same name introduced in 2015 by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, along with senators from California, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio.

Wyden and Merkley introduced additional legislation Wednesday, July 13, called the Mandate Oil Spill Inspections and Emergency Rules (MOSIER) Act. The act would require the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate major oil train derailments. It also clarifies the Federal Railroad Administration's authority to place moratoriums on oil train traffic when accidents occur, and would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to reduce the amount of volatile gases in the transported crude oil.

Bonamici's bill comes less than six weeks after a unit train carrying crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier derailed, causing tanks to explode and oil to contaminate the city's wastewater treatment system.

“The oil train derailment and fire in Mosier struck close to home, and I’ve heard from people in communities in Oregon who worry that they might be next,” Bonamici stated via email.

Prior to the derailment in Mosier, Columbia County residents had criticized and voiced heavy concerns for safety over crude oil transport through the county, in some places, just feet schools and businesses. Shipments of crude oil have since been replaced with ethanol shipments after a commodity change at Global Partners LP's bio-refinery in Clatskanie.

The explosion in Mosier happened despite the rail company's use of the newest design of tanker cars.

Bonamici said her bill would get older, unsafe tanker cars off tracks, and implement other important safety measures.

“We know that older tank cars have been involved in deadly accidents,” she stated. “As the National Transportation Safety Board said, these tank cars are ‘not up to the task.’ Incentivizing companies to upgrade their tank cars is a necessary step to make communities on rail lines safer, but it is just one of the many actions we need to take to ensure our communities are safe.”

The proposed legislation includes oversight for Class 3 hazardous materials like ethanol, crude oil, liquefied natural gas and other flammable liquids.