Wyden, Merkley Take Railroads To Task Over Oil Train Safety

Jan 24, 2014

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley asked railroad company executives Friday to address mounting concerns about oil train safety in Oregon.

Following several oil train derailments and related emergencies in the past six months, the senators gathered in Portland with public officials officials and rail industry representatives.

Wyden and Merkley both said they're hearing more and more concerns from their constituents about outdated railroad cars, a lack of information available to first responders about crude oil shipments and insufficient safety regulations governing the delivery of crude oil by rail.

As North Dakota's Bakken oil fields produce more and more oil, the Northwest has seen a surge in proposals to deliver that crude oil to refineries and shipping terminals by rail. There have been 10 proposals to increase oil train traffic in Washington, and an oil-by-rail operation at Columbia Pacific Biorefinery near Clatskanie has plans to double its capacity.

Federal rules weren't designed to deal with the surge in oil being transported by rail, Wyden said.

"Our challenge is to get out of the time warp," he said. "There's no question there's going to be a lot more oil production. The question is what to do about making sure the standards and rules for transportation and public disclosure keep up with the times."

Wyden and Merkley said they, too, are concerned about the high number of outdated trains, known as DOT-111, carrying crude oil across the country. They asked local emergency response officials gathered at the meeting to share their concerns, and asked railroad companies to respond.

"We've heard several concerns about 111 tank cars. We've heard a number of questions with regard to the speed of the trains," Wyden told railroad company executives at the meeting. "Start with those two issues. How is the cause of implementing changes and reforms going in those two areas?"

Jerry Vest of Portland and Western Railroad said his company shares the American Railroad Association's position supporting regulations that require "we either retrofit or replace DOT111 cars."

"How long is that going to take?" Wyden asked him.

"I know some car builders who would be happy to jump on this quickly, but I don't have an answer to that," Vest said.

"That's what people are going to ask," Wyden said. "Oregonians are going to say: Look, we've heard a fair amount now about how there are these outdated cars out there, and we've heard Congress talking about replacing them. How long is that going to take?"

Wyden said local emergency responders want to know when oil trains will be arriving in their communities and what kind of crude oil they are carrying. He said they've had a hard time getting that information.

"Our local firefighters and paramedics have indicated to us that they need more information about when and where oil trains are coming," Wyden said. "The railroads have expressed some concerns about making that information available. It raises questions in their view about security."

In some cases, he said, "we're going to have to strike a better balance between information-sharing and security."

Vest said the growth in crude oil shipments by rail is "a major issue" that his company is willing to discuss with affected communities.

"We're more than happy to work with first responders to develop notifications for letting folks know when trains are coming," he said.

Mark Schulze of BNSF Railway said the industry has proposed new standards for oil train cars and supports some changes in safety regulations.

"I appreciate everything everybody's doing here -– understanding that 99.997 percent of shipments of crude oil are moved safely," he said. "We've had a year that has had increased exposure, obviously, because the oil shipments are increasing tremendously."

Wyden responded:

"Nobody believes you all get up in the morning and say 'hey we're going to be disinterested in safety.' We get up and we know that you're interested in that, but we also know that there's vastly more crude being shipped. That's why I'm saying that I'm not sure the rules for distribution have kept up with the times."

Wyden said he will be working on reforming oil train safety regulations as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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