NPR Story
12:57 pm
Thu May 8, 2014

DOT Requires Better Oil By Rail Notice, But Some Unknowns Remain for NW Responders

Northwest emergency responders soon will receive more information about how much Bakken crude oil is moving by rail through their communities.

An emergency order from the U.S. Department of Transportation Wednesday requires that for any shipment over 1 million gallons, or roughly 35 tank cars, railroads must provide notification to State Emergency Response Commissions about estimated volumes of crude being transported, the route, and the frequency of the anticipated weekly train traffic.

“It’s critical for the safety of our communities and our first responders,” said Linda Kent, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology, which responds to oil spills. “Any time we provide more information about potential hazards and have more information about potential hazards, it helps us and it also helps communities be more prepared for possible incidents.”

The availability of such information has been a point of contention between railroads and emergency responders, who say they lack not only the equipment and expertise to respond to an oil train derailment but were left in the dark about what to prepare for. Many state agencies and fire departments claim they were unaware of the movement of crude oil on the region’s train tracks until many months after the trains arrived.

The order comes days after a CSX train of 105 tank cars derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, resulting in an explosion and spill of 30,000 gallons into the James River. In 2013, an oil train on a short-line railroad exploded and killed 47 people in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Another derailed and spilled nearly 750,000 gallons in Aliceville, Alabama, and a BNSF Railway train exploded and lost 400,000 gallons in Casselton, North Dakota.

“The safety of the communities where we operate is our highest concern,” said Courtney Wallace, a spokeswoman for BNSF, which ships oil by rail out of North Dakota and across Oregon, Washington and Idaho. “BNSF, as a matter of practice, makes commodity information available upon request to state agencies and emergency response organizations concerning hazardous materials transported on its routes.”

Railroads now have 30 days to comply with the order and provide notice to states. After the deadline, railroads must provided updated notification if and when weekly train traffic rises or falls more than 25 percent or the volume in the trains changes significantly.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal, which functions as the State Emergency Response Commission and would receive the notifications, said the agency is still digesting the order and has not determined how exactly to handle that information.

“We’re not really sure how regular of a basis does this mean that this reporting has to take place? Do they have to do it once a month, do they have to do it once a quarter?” said Rich Hoover, spokesman for the Oregon State Fire Marshal. Hoover said the agency does not yet know how the information will flow to first responders and what state agencies will be involved.

Regardless, Hoover said, the new order will greatly enhance the amount of information first responders currently receive.

“It’s not happening now,” Hoover said. “This information isn’t being currently given out in the way I understand it being described by this order.”

Portland Fire and Rescue Chief Erin Janssens said the new requirement alone was not enough.

"The DOT’s new notification requirement is a positive step forward, but what’s most critical is that fire and rescue departments have the resources necessary to respond effectively to an oil spill incident," she wrote via email. "Unfortunately, at this time we’re not equipped to respond to such volatile fuel."

The best scenario, she wrote, requires not only informed communities but increased inspection and track maintenance, stronger tank cars, larger stocks of foam to fight fuel fires and additional booming materials to prevent spills into Northwest waters.

Current caches of booms are lacking, and states have no authority to require better spill response plans from railroads.

The emergency order as worded to does not apply to crude oil produced in regions other than the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.

Crude oil from Canada’s Tar Sands currently moves through Oregon and Washington on its way to refineries in California, which at the end of 2013 accepted a record 709,000 barrels of Canadian crude by rail. One of the most direct and established routes for that crude is south through Oregon and Washington on Union Pacific tracks, though not all of it travels that route.

Crude oil from Utah also moves through Oregon, but its precise volumes and destinations are unknown. In January, a former asphalt plant was purchased by a company specializing in storage and loading of crude and petroleum products. The company told Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality initially it planned to accept waxy crude products, such as those produced in Utah. Tank cars carrying crude oil have been observed at the plant.

Michael Zollitsch, emergency response Unit leader at DEQ, said crude from Canada and Utah are not known to be as explosive as Bakken crude, but that the agency doesn’t yet understand either product as well as it would like.

“If this is going to be coming through our state we need to learn what it is and figure out how it may change our responses,” Zollitsch said.

From what is known of Canadian crude, Zollitsch said it could require an especially complicated cleanup if it spills.

“While it’s not as likely to catch on fire as the Bakken does, it’s a heavier crude and if it this water its going to be more difficult to detect,” Zollitsch said.

The DOT order does not require railroads to disclose the volumes, frequencies or routes for either of these crude oils moving through a given state.

The emergency order issued Wednesday also urges railroads not to use older model tanks cars that are easily ruptured in accidents, even at slow speeds. However, while Canada has issued a new rule with a timeline for phasing out the flawed tank cars, the U.S. still has no rules prohibiting their use.

Earlier this year, BNSF committed to purchasing 5,000 new tank cars built to a higher safety standard. In April, an oil terminal owned by Global Partners LP in Clatskanie, Oregon, which receives most of the state's Bakken oil by rail shipments, announced that by June it would accept exclusively newer, safer tank car models.

Ashley Ahearn contributed to this report.

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