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State tinkers with oil spill regulations

Changes aim to transport oil, other materials more safely


TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Booms collect oil leaked into the Willamette River by docked ships. State officials are working on oil spill regulations.A year-long review will end with revised state rules enabling emergency services agencies to plan for and respond to spills of hazardous materials, including oil.

The rules will clarify how railroads will inform agencies of shipments and spills, consistent with federal laws and regulations that pre-empt state action. They also provide for limited disclosure by the Oregon Department of Transportation of some information to the public.

The Oregon Transportation Commission is scheduled to adopt the revised rules when it meets Friday, Aug. 21, in La Grande.

The revisions are on the commission’s consent calendar, which means they will be acted on without discussion unless there is a request.

However, they were the focus of four public hearings that ODOT’s Rail Division conducted around the state in May. ODOT Director Matt Garrett told the commission in July that the hearings were “lightly attended,” although written comments were received.

The review process was set in motion by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber a year ago, after a surge of crude oil pumped from the Bakken basin in North Dakota and shipped by rail through Oregon, where the oil is loaded onto barges bound for refineries in other states.

The rules were most recently changed in 1997, based on a 1975 law.

A number of oil-train crashes in the United States and Canada in the past two years — including a July 2013 crash in Quebec that claimed 47 lives — have raised the public visibility of the issue.

Among the changes are required reports by the railroads to ODOT, filed quarterly instead of annually, on actual shipments of hazardous materials. ODOT will make this information available to emergency services agencies on a secure website for their planning purposes.

Advance-notice requirements for shipments are pre-empted by federal rules.

Another change will specify what information railroads will provide to emergency services agencies that respond to an incident, and to the Oregon Emergency Response System, which serves state agencies.

Under another proposed change, ODOT will compile some of the information it gathers for quarterly reports. But they will not be automatically released to the public; someone must say why the case for public disclosure outweighs the need for confidentiality under Oregon’s public records law.

In a separate action, the 2015 Legislature passed House Bill 3225, which in amended form sets aside $365,225 from the tax-supported general fund for the Office of the State Fire Marshal to help agencies with response plans to rail spills of oil and hazardous materials.

It is a stripped-down version of what was originally proposed by Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland. She sought a one-time assessment of $3.75 million against railroads, plus annual amounts of $375,000, for agency planning and readiness for spills.