New recommendations for oil train safety issued Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board reinforced the lack of readiness in the Pacific Northwest and the country for risks posed by oil trains carrying potentially explosive crude from North Dakota.
In 2013, at least 110 oil trains carrying North Dakota crude passed through Portland and rural towns on the Columbia River en route to a terminal in Port Westward, near Clatskanie. State regulators were caught flatfooted by their arrival and only recently began to plan for the risks oil trains introduced.
The NTSB made it clear that similar deficiencies exist at the federal level, exposing local taxpayers – not railroads – to significant liabilities.
"The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist 10 years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," Deborah A.P. Hersman, the NTSB chairwoman, said in a statement.
Here are two key takeaways from the NTSB’s recommendations.
1. If a catastrophic oil train spill happens today in Oregon or Washington, taxpayers will get stuck with the cleanup bill.
Because of a loophole, railroads aren’t required to have detailed oil spill response plans to deal with worst-case disasters, the NTSB said in a letter recommending reforms.
Railroads maintain basic spill plans. But they aren’t required to plan for catastrophes like the July 6 oil train accident in Quebec that killed 47 people, burned down part of a town and spilled 1.6 million gallons of crude. Nor are they required to demonstrate that they have sufficient caches of emergency equipment to contain disastrous spills that followed explosions in North Dakota and Alabama last year, the NTSB said.
Because stricter requirements aren’t mandated, “the burden of responding to an accident and remediating the aftermath is still left with communities,” the NTSB wrote.
Federal law requires detailed, worst-case emergency plans only when shipping more than 42,000 gallons of oil in a single package. Although oil trains in Oregon carry hundreds of thousands of gallons in each trainload, the oil is shipped in separate cars that each hold less than 42,000 gallons, allowing railroads to avoid that legal requirement, the NTSB said.
2. The NTSB said railroads should reroute oil trains around sensitive and populated areas where feasible. But that won’t make any difference along a key route now carrying oil trains in Oregon. Or one proposed in Vancouver, Wash.
Oil trains moving North Dakota crude currently travel through rural cities like Rainier, Scappoose and St. Helens en route to a terminal in Port Westward, near Clatskanie. That rail line bisects a main street in Rainier, passes schools in Scappoose and travels less than 100 feet from homes in St. Helens.
It’s the only option. Despite the NTSB’s recommendations, which were endorsed by the railroad industry, there isn’t another rail line that avoids those towns.
The oil train terminal proposed in Vancouver, Wash., is in a similar situation. The rail line that will feed it comes through residential neighborhoods. But there’s not another connection that doesn’t pass homes.
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