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Expected state oil-by-rail rules must make industry accountable

Oregon is on the right track in its consideration to add administrative rules that would give emergency response agencies more resources and a better ability to respond to hazardous material spills, including possible spills and other disasters involving volatile crude oil originating from North Dakota.

Rail transport of North Dakota crude oil has been occurring in Columbia County since 2012, when the Port of St. Helens signed a lease agreement with Massachusetts-based oil transloading company Global Partners LP for oil deliveries to the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie.

The deliveries through Columbia County involve the same material at the heart of several explosive, high-profile rail disasters in North America, including a derailment in West Virginia on Tuesday, Feb. 17, that resulted in a massive fireball that shot upwards of 300 feet in the sky and endangered the drinking water supply for a nearby community. The West Virginia event followed an oil-by-rail spill and fire in Ontario, Canada, that occurred just days earlier, on Saturday, Feb. 14.

The West Virginia disaster is notable in that the tanker cars used to ship the crude oil were of the upgraded DOT-111 model that is compliant with the industry’s highest safety standard for crude oil tanker cars, CPC-1232. Global has mandated the new cars to be used for oil shipments occurring through Columbia County. The upgraded tanker cars, as is now very apparent, however, will not stop a rupture and explosion in the event of a derailment — an event that seems to be all too frequent.

Exactly what can be achieved through the drafting of new state administrative rules is not fully known at this point. Federal rules have standing over state action where rail issues are concerned. Still, the effort sends a message to federal rail regulators that additional steps are needed to ensure the safest possible transport of hazardous materials. In communities such as Columbia County, where the transport of North Dakota crude oil occurs in close proximity to residential communities and schools, it’s paramount.

Peter Wong, the Capital Bureau reporter for Pamplin Media Group, reports in this week’s issue (see “In light of oil train concerns, rule change could aid emergency responders,” A11) that the Oregon Transportation Commission was briefed on the proposed administrative rule changes Thursday, Feb. 19. The OTC is now expected to schedule four public meetings in Portland, Bend, Pendleton and Klamath Falls regarding the changes.

In 2013 and 2014, six states — including Oregon — proposed legislation aimed at influencing oil-by-rail transports, according to information posted on the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website. Those efforts were only marginally successful.

Although Oregon’s action solely included passage of a joint memorial urging Congress to enhance safety standards for new and existing tank cars, Minnesota’s House File 3172 — arguably the most successful of the state actions — provided additional funding for railroad emergency preparedness and response, including hiring additional inspectors, requiring railroad companies to train local fire departments, and requiring the commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Safety to submit a report on emergency response preparedness.

We want to signal our support of this rule-writing effort as an additional step toward ensuring Columbia County emergency service providers receive the necessary training and equipment to respond to potential crude oil disaster, with the provision it drives real safety enhancements for oil-by-rail affected communities. We also believe funding to ensure any additional preparation should be borne by the industry to an extent even greater than what is captured in Minnesota’s HF 3172.

The results of a train derailment, tank car rupture and ignition of volatile North Dakota crude can be deadly. The most notable example of that fact has been the 47 deaths the resulted from the Lac-Mégantic, Canada, disaster of July 2013.

And as we’ve now seen in West Virginia and Ontario last week, the transport of volatile North Dakota crude remains a significant public safety concern, despite industry and, in many local cases, governmental efforts to convince us otherwise.