Resolution asks agencies to demand halt to traffic over safety concerns

by: FILE PHOTO - A DOT-111 tank car passes through Scappoose as part of a unit train earlier this month. The Portland and Western Railroad tracks parallel Highway 30 through several communities in Columbia County, including Scappoose, Columbia City, Deer Island, Goble, Prescott, Rainier, St. Helens and Warren.The Columbia County Democratic Central Committee agreed by voice vote to a resolution Tuesday, Jan. 28, calling on government agencies to demand a halt to freight trains delivering crude oil to Port Westward until “necessary rail safety improvements are in place” and a controversial model of tank car has been replaced or retrofitted.

Bill Blank, secretary of the CCDCC, said Democrats at the committee’s monthly meeting Tuesday night agreed to the proposal offered by Darrel Whipple of Rainier, a vocal opponent of oil train traffic in Columbia County.

“It’s for the safety of the community overall,” Blank said Wednesday. “They wanted to make sure that they passed a resolution that was strong enough to state that something should be done.”

The resolution “urges” the Port of St. Helens, Columbia County’s elected officials and the state of Oregon “to demand the immediate cessation” of trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale oilfields of North Dakota to Port Westward, a port-owned industrial park north of Clatskanie where the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery is sited.

Unit trains of tank cars have been delivering crude oil to the refinery, which is owned by Massachusetts-based energy company Global Partners LP, since late 2012. Once the oil is delivered, it is transloaded onto barges and shipped north to Washington.

The practice of transporting crude oil by rail has attracted controversy after a series of recent derailments, including one deadly wreck in Quebec in which a runaway oil train left its tracks and detonated in the middle of a small town. The population of Lac-Mégantic, which was devastated by the explosion last July, is just a few hundred people fewer than the population of Scappoose, one of several cities bisected by the Portland and Western Railroad tracks between Port Westward and Portland.

A tank car model involved in the recent derailments in Quebec, Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick — incidents mentioned in the resolution Columbia County Democrats adopted Tuesday — has drawn scrutiny from federal regulators in the United States and Canada, as well as industry trade groups. One such group, the Association of American Railroads, called on the U.S. government last November to adopt new rules requiring the ubiquitous DOT-111 tank car to be phased out or retrofitted to proposed new safety standards for flammable liquid transportation.

DOT-111 tank cars are a frequent sight in Columbia County, with unit trains of the cars passing through its eastern communities multiple times per week.

The resolution states that the cars should be replaced or retrofitted as a condition for allowing continued oil train deliveries to Port Westward.

Emergency response a key goal

Port officials and Columbia River Fire & Rescue Chief Jay Tappan said earlier this month that the port, railroad, and emergency responders in Columbia County and beyond are working together to prepare for the possibility of a derailment or oil train fire.

The Democrats’ resolution calls for “responsible agencies” to hold public meetings to discuss their emergency response plans as a condition to oil train traffic being allowed through Columbia County.

“That seems to be the general idea, is just force a plan of action to have an emergency response plan,” Blank said.

A spokesman for Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns Portland and Western, confirmed Wednesday in an email that the railroad has “safety preparedness plans” in place and is collaborating with emergency responders along the rail line.

“P&W has offered to work with local first responders to determine what supplies are needed and assist them in pursuing funding options,” wrote Mike Williams. “Currently, in addition to [Portland Fire & Rescue]’s capabilities, P&W’s retained environmental-response specialists have access to at least 1,800 gallons of firefighting foam (providing the capability to spray 48,000 gallons) and three self-contained foam trailers.”

But there is only so much that can be done to respond to an explosion or massive blaze aboard a train.

Fires in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota burned for days after the trainwrecks there last year before they were extinguished.

CRF&R Division Chief Ron Youngberg told the Columbia City Hazard Mitigation Planning Group at a meeting Monday at which DOT-111 cars and rail safety were discussed that if there is a large oil train fire in the fire district, “Quite frankly, we’re not going to put these out. ... We’re going to watch it burn for a while.”

Blank voiced particular concern Wednesday about the potential for a wreck in Rainier, where the railroad tracks cut through the asphalt along A Street downtown.

“If anything were to happen there, it would just wipe out that town,” Blank said.

Muted response from agencies

It is unclear what, if any, impact the Democrats’ resolution will have on rail traffic in Columbia County.

Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp declined to comment on the resolution Wednesday afternoon, saying he had not seen it.

Trapp also hedged on whether the port has “sole discretion” to stop deliveries to Port Westward under its existing agreements with its tenants. He said he does not know whether the port has the right to do so.

“You’re talking about legal issues built into contracts,” said Trapp.

The port owns the rail lead at Port Westward, which branches off from the P&W short line north of Clatskanie, but it allows Global to use the lead to bring in up to 24 oil trains per month.

Whipple, the architect of the Democrats’ resolution, briefed the Board of County Commissioners on the resolution at a meeting Wednesday.

“What this resolution represents is the people out there in the precincts, in your grassroots, saying, ‘We don’t want to take that risk any longer,’” Whipple said, after highlighting the recent rail incidents elsewhere in North America.

The commissioners did not comment on the subject other than to affirm their commitment to “public safety.”

“The Board of Commissioners has the ultimate role of being very, very concerned with the safety of the citizens of this county,” said Commissioner Earl Fisher, one of two members of the three-man board elected on the Democratic Party line. “And I say that because I don’t want anybody who is concerned about rail cars exploding or criminals being left on the street — we are extremely cognizant of the responsibility that we have to keep our citizens safe. At the end of the day, that is our most important charge, and we balance all of those other concerns against public safety. That’s the most important thing we do, and people should never forget that.”

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