NPR Story
5:51 pm
Mon May 19, 2014

Central Oregon Grapples With Rising Oil Train Safety Risks

A growing number of oil trains are now moving south along Central Oregon's Deschutes River, presenting a new risk for oil spills along one of Oregon’s most iconic rivers and new safety concerns for communities in the region.

According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, BNSF Railway carried more than 4,300 oil tanker cars through Central Oregon last year –- likely headed to refineries in California. That number grew 58 percent from around 2,700 cars in 2011.

But many leaders in Central Oregon weren't alerted to those trains until fishermen on the Deschutes River spotted and photographed tank cars bearing the telltale number "1267" –- indicating crude oil cargo –- earlier this month. Officials are now wondering whether Central Oregon communities are prepared to handle the kind of oil train derailments that have caused several damaging explosions and fires over the past year.

"All of a sudden there's this increasing awareness of how many trains are moving through our region," said Bend City Councilor Sally Russell, who noted that a set of shared BNSF and Union Pacific railroad tracks run right through her city. "We straddle that rail line, so all this really volatile oil is moving right through the center of Bend -– and really all of Central Oregon. It's very much a concern."

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has organized a meeting with emergency responders in Bend on Friday to talk about what they need to be prepared for an oil train derailment. Wyden organized a similar meeting in Portland in January. According to Tom Towslee, a spokesman for Wyden's office, the issue hadn't come up in Central Oregon at that point.

“When we did the one in Portland we didn't realize there was going to be an issue in Central Oregon," he said. "Clearly this is an issue that has become high profile in that region. We want to hear from first responders in the region about how prepared they are."

Officials say an oil spill into the Deschutes would be more problematic than spills elsewhere, such as on the Columbia River. Barges have been carrying petroleum up and down the Columbia for decades, but shipments along the Deschutes are new and came without warning. So, few resources exist to respond to a spill.

Even if the state had caches in central Oregon of boom used to contain an oil spill, emergency planners say those are largely ineffective on fast-moving rivers like the Deschutes.

"Once you get into the inland zone and you’re dealing with rivers, the chances of getting ahead of a spill with boom in a river are so much more difficult than in the Columbia where it’s fairly slow moving," said Don Pettit, Emergency Response Planner with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Michael Lang, conservation director for the environmental group Friends of the Gorge, has flagged problems with the emergency response plan for the Deschutes River. The plan was developed in 2004 – before BNSF began transporting Bakken crude oil by rail.

"An accident would devastate the river," said the group's Michael Lang. "The Deschutes River is a federally designated wild and scenic river and is world-renowned for its trout, salmon and steelhead fishery. The railroad tracks are very curvy, steep and there are numerous hazards including rock fall and wildlife."

Meanwhile, budget cuts removed the state's regional hazmat team in Redmond. Such teams are called to respond to spills and fires involving hazardous materials, such as crude oil, that exceed the capabilities of local fire departments. The loss of the Redmond hazmat unit leaves the closest team to Bend more than two hours away in Salem. The state has a goal response time of under two hours.

Tim Moor, Fire Chief at Redmond Fire and Rescue, which used to house the area's hazmat team, said he is concerned about the lack of information available to him about oil trains coming through his community.

"We're an all-risk fire department and we have experience in responding to hazardous material calls, so those types of things are not a new event for us," he sad. "We currently are not informed when those trains come through our fire district, so that's certainly an issue we're concerned about and want to learn more about."

Moor said his department serves the Redmond Municipal Airport and has access to more equipment needed to fight a fuel fire that most departments. But it's not enough to fight the kind of fire that would result from a derailed oil train. He said unless the train derails in a populated area, the best option might be to let it burn. Responders have opted for that approach elsewhere, like in Casselton, North Dakota, where a BNSF train derailed in December, caught fire and spilled nearly 400,000 gallons of oil.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said any fire department that wants information on the movement of oil trains through its region can get it if they ask. He said the railroad helps train local responders and has its own hazmat technicians in southwest Washington and spill boom throughout the state that could be utilized if an oil train derailed.

Russell said she's hoping a series of conversations among public officials and emergency responders in Deschutes County will shed light on what resources the region does and does not have to deal with an oil train emergency.

"Given what's happened in other communities, it appears that the risk of catastrophe can be fairly high," she said. "My job is to alert everyone and make sure we're having the right conversations, that we're asking the right questions that we set up a plan that ensures the safety of our community and our region."

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