Letter to Obama Cabinet secretaries refers to Quebec rail disaster, others in calling for 'increased vigilance'

United States Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and another Democratic senator sent a letter Thursday, Jan. 9, to two secretaries in President Barack Obama's administration urging them to evaluate the safety of transporting crude oil by freight train and ascertain how much oil is being moved on U.S. Railroads.

The letter from Wyden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, refers to four “alarming” recent incidents in which trains carrying oil have caught fire or exploded in North America.

Last July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, leaving 47 dead and obliterating much of its downtown. In November, an oil train derailed in western Alabama, exploding into flames and spilling oil into the wetlands. Late last month, an oil train struck another train and exploded outside the North Dakota town of Casselton. This week, on Tuesday night, a train carrying crude oil and propane derailed near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, and burst into flames.

Only the Lac-Mégantic derailment resulted in casualties, but the Alabama derailment has resulted in an unknown amount of environmental damage, and the Casselton and New Brunswick derailments led to temporary evacuations by residents close to the trainwrecks. Both of the derailments in Canada took place just miles from the U.S. border.

In their letter, Wyden and Rockefeller noted that the amount of oil transported by rail in the U.S. has increased due to “the shale oil boom.” All of last year's trainwrecks involved tank cars carrying light crude oil from the Bakken shale oilfields of North Dakota. Federal regulators announced last Thursday that they are looking into whether Bakken light crude is more flammable than other types of crude oil.

The letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx states in part, “It is critical that crudes be properly evaluated to understand whether they require special precautions and handling.”

It adds, “Safety requirements must be evaluated and updated to ensure they adequately address the risks of carrying crude oil.”

The letter concludes by stating that the incidents demand "increased vigilance" and urging the secretaries to "work together to quickly resolve issues with the transportation of crude oil in order to protect our communities, and prevent any further disasters."

Trains carrying crude oil pass through Columbia County on the Portland and Western Railroad, bound for the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery at the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie, several times per week. Some local officials have expressed concern over the potential for a similar disaster to strike along the rail line, which parallels Highway 30 through several Columbia River communities.

The Spotlight will carry an in-depth report on the oil train situation in Columbia County on Friday, Jan. 10.

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