By Roy L Hales
The oil train you see above may be one of the last to pass through Hood River, Oregon. Three weeks ago a near catastrophic derailment/fire occurred in the neighbouring town of Mosier. The town is still dealing with the aftereffects. Thursday the Federal Rail Authority’s (FRA) Preliminary report blamed the incident on Union Pacific’s failure to maintain their tracks. Now the Governors of Washington and Oregon are calling upon the FRA to halt Pacific Northwest oil trains.
Halt Pacific Northwest Oil Trains
“The Federal Railroad Administration’s preliminary Mosier derailment report calls attention to serious safety concerns and the need for improved track inspections. I expect the final investigation report to be completed quickly and again call on rail operators to halt oil trains in Oregon until the strongest safety measures are put in place by federal authorities to protect Oregonians,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown, in a press release.
The FRA report states that “ … multiple lag bolts in this section of Union Pacific track were broken and sheared, leading to tie plates loosening from ties. The loosened tie plates allowed for the rails to be pushed outwards as trains moved across them, eventually resulting in an area of wide gauge, leading to the derailment.”
Washington wants Union Pacific to do more walking inspections, which could have detected the problem at Mosier before there was a derailment.
Company spokesperson Justin Jacobs claims Union Pacific has walked 533 miles of its’ track since the incident.
He added, “We are required to transport crude oil and other commodities for our customers, as long as the customers deliver those packaged in conformity with U.S. Department of Transportation requirements.”
“It is unclear at this point whether the FRA has the authority to order a stop to unsafe oil train transport, but they committed to looking into what they can do and will revisit what can be done to halt UP’s (Union Pacific) Bakken oil train transport until necessary safety improvements are made,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
Increase In Oil By Rail Traffic
During the past seven years, the amount of oil by rail traffic to the coast has increased over 5,000%. This has resulted in a corresponding surge in the number of oil train derailments, spills, fires, and explosions. There was more oil spilled from trains in 2013, alone, than the previous four decades.
The Columbia River, which runs between Washington and Oregon, could become a major oil-by-rail corridor. There are currently four terminal proposals under consideration. The largest of these projects is Tesoro Savage, which “would require at least four unit trains per day, with each train extending for approximately 1.5 miles.”
Other Railway Issues
The defective lag bolts at Mosier are not the only railway maintenance problem in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Lee First, one of the researchers whose findings were published in Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains, there are multiple issues with 23 railway bridges along the Chehalis River and Gray’s Harbour estuary. These include pier foundation cracks and/or rotten, cracked or missing support structures.
“We saw some bridges with a hundred missing bolts – these are huge bolts – rusted angle braces … (and) severely rusted beams,” she said.
Governor Inslee recently made a number of recommendations to Congress:
• The USDOT and shippers must speed up the transition to safer cars. Crude oil, particularly Bakken crude, is volatile. Many current tank cars are not strong enough to protect volatile contents from the heat of a fire or the impact of a collision. Yet USDOT has allowed tank car manufacturers a decade to retire existing fleets and introduce a new tank car design. We can cut that timeline in half.
• Federal authorities must establish lower speed limits. Currently, for “high-hazard flammable trains,” that’s 50 mph. While some railroads voluntarily limit speeds to 35 mph for oil trains in large cities, no such commitments extend to rural areas or communities the size of Mosier, Ore., the site of the latest derailment.
• Federal authorities must ensure that electronic braking requirements outlined in USDOT’s recent tank car rule remain in effect despite litigation and the pending cost-benefit analysis required by Congress.
• States need assurance that the costs of these disasters are not borne by our communities. The railroads continue to seek liability caps to shield themselves from these costs.
• The federal government must restrict the use of railroad tracks for storage of volatile materials. At times, thousands of tank cars loaded with crude oil are used for storage, sitting unattended for months on unused track. Residents of Whatcom County recently told state regulators they had serious safety concerns regarding unattended oil cars sitting within 1,200 feet of an elementary school.
• USDOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration needs to finalize rules that expand and strengthen requirements for railroad oil spill response plans.