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Quebec rail disaster: Could it happen here?

Officials aware of risks


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWAN - In November, Global Partners LLC began its rail transport of unit trains containing light, sweet crude oil to a transloading site at Port Westward.The derailment and explosion of a runaway train carrying crude oil in a small Quebec town last weekend grabbed international headlines — and some worry the disaster could repeat itself in Columbia County.

In Quebec, the freight train rolled downhill into Lac-Megantic from a neighboring town after its engineer had disembarked. On a curve in the track in the middle of the town, the train derailed and several tanker cars full of crude oil ignited.

The subsequent explosions leveled some 30 buildings and may have vaporized people near the blast. Fifty people are presumed dead, according to police.

“Imagine having something like that in downtown Scappoose or St. Helens, where the train line goes right down the middle of town,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper. “It’d be horrific.”

About 2,000 people in Lac-Megantic were temporarily evacuated due to the explosion and resulting fire, Serres noted.

“Imagining that in a town like Scappoose is just hard to fathom,” Serres said.

Rail communities

The Rainier City Council decided earlier this year to oppose a proposed expansion of the Port Westward Industrial Park near Clatskanie over concerns it will bring additional train traffic through Columbia County.

The Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery at Port Westward has been transloading unit trains of crude oil since November 2012. Those trains — about nine of them per month this year, according to a railroad spokesman — travel along the Astoria Line of the Portland & Western Railroad through Columbia County to the industrial park, passing through the cities of Scappoose, St. Helens, Columbia City, Prescott and Rainier along the way.

Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole said “there’s always a concern in the back of your head” that something like what happened in Lac-Megantic could happen in his city.

“Those are the same trains that come right through our county,” Cole said, adding “With that kind of material coming through our towns, it should be a concern for all of us, from Scappoose to Clatskanie. And I’m not saying that it needs to go away, but everybody needs to know, you know, don’t be naive to it.”

Referring again to Lac-Megantic, Cole said, “If it can happen there, it can happen here.”

Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens, which owns the Port Westward site, agreed with Cole that “anything can happen anywhere.” But Trapp voiced confidence in Columbia County’s emergency response capabilities, as well as in rail transportation.

“The goal is to try to ensure practices, safety practices, policies and procedures are in place,” said Trapp, who called Columbia County “a model” for emergency preparedness.

Railroad cites safety measures

Mike Williams, a spokesman for Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns the Pacific & Western Railroad, said the company had already been reviewing safety practices prior to the Lac-Megantic disaster, and that it has already adopted new rules to further ensure that unattended trains are braked in place in response to what happened there.

“Efforts such as these are part of our normal, continuously improving safety program to ensure that G&W railroads have the right people, operating procedures, equipment and track conditions to prevent train accidents,” Williams wrote in an email.

Williams also outlined some of the safety orders already in place.

“The Portland & Western restricts train speed to 10 mph in two segments where the railroad runs along the cliff in close proximity to the river, and as extra precaution, these segments are patrolled by employees in hi-rail trucks in advance of all crude oil trains to verify that the track is free of any obstructions,” Williams wrote.

The Association of American Railroads contends that trains are actually the safest way to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials without them leaking. A spokeswoman for the group responded to a query from the Spotlight by highlighting a factsheet on the AAR’s website, which cites a “99.9977 [percent]” success rate of hazmat trains reaching their destinations without a leak. Williams mentioned the same statistic.

“Since 1990, there have been no fatalities or injuries related to the movement of crude by rail in the U.S.,” the factsheet concludes.

For Serres’ part, he said he is not advocating any particular means of transporting coal or oil, remarking that the Lac-Megantic incident “should definitely give people pause about whether we want to commit all of these ports to being oil terminals.”

“I think it argues in favor of limiting our use of those fossil fuels as much as possible,” Serres added.

The general manager of the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery did not return a call requesting comment.

2011’s tanker collision

But as Trapp noted, crude oil is not the only hazardous material that is transported by rail in the area.

A log train jumped its track and collided with tanker cars carrying highly flammable denatured alcohol near the intersection of Highway 30 and Cornelius Pass Road in May 2011, causing two cars to ignite. There were no injuries, but a 15-mile stretch of highway was closed for several hours, and officials at the time worried that a chemical spill could damage the environment.

Williams wrote that the 2011 incident is “to my knowledge the only hazmat release that has ever occurred on the Portland & Western.” He said the railroad has adopted additional safety regulations since then to reduce the risk of such collisions.

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