A conservation group that has raised concerns about the huge increase in crude oil rail shipments through the Columbia River Gorge is now warning that oil train traffic is increasing through Central Oregon.
The number of tank cars transporting oil through downtown Bend and other cities east of the Cascades increased by 58 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to information released by the Oregon Department of Transportation on Wednesday.
The nonprofit Friends of the Columbia River Gorge obtained photos this week of what the group’s conservation director says was a train with approximately 100 oil tanker cars that was traveling south along the Lower Deschutes River on Sunday. Public officials and activists have focused on the increase in oil shipments by rail along the Columbia River Gorge, which is a major corridor for oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota.
But the Oregon Department of Transportation confirmed Wednesday that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway transported increasingly large numbers of crude oil tankers in recent years along the line that runs from the Columbia River south through Central Oregon to the California border. The state agency says BNSF transported more than 4,300 tanker cars of crude oil through Central Oregon in 2013, approximately 23 percent of the total of more than 19,000 carloads of crude transported on railways through the state last year.
That was a 58 percent increase from 2011, when BNSF transported more than 2,700 tank cars of crude through Central Oregon, according to ODOT.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF based in the Pacific Northwest, said on Wednesday that the railway does not release information to the public about the types and quantities of materials it transports through communities.
“That’s for security,” Melonas said. He added that this is “customer privileged information” and “the Oregon trunk line (through Central Oregon) is not a high-volume crude oil line.” The state does require railways to submit annual reports to ODOT on the quantities of materials transported through the state.
Earlier this year, The Bulletin’s analysis of data from the state Department of Environmental Quality on hazardous material spills from trains revealed that a BNSF train derailed in Maupin in June 2000. In that case, the initial report of possible leakage from sulfuric acid cars turned out to be unfounded. Melonas described that incident as minor. “Not in years has there been one of significance,” Melonas said of incidents on the line through Central Oregon.
Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said he was in a drift boat on the Lower Deschutes River around 3 p.m. Sunday when he spotted a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train with a long string of crude oil tank cars. Another person in the boat snapped photos of the train. Lang said he saw the code for crude oil on the tank cars. He said he heard rumors about trains transporting crude oil along the Deschutes River last winter, but to his knowledge this is the first time someone photographed one of the crude oil trains.
“It matters to Friends of the Columbia Gorge of course because the mouth of the Deschutes (River) is a national scenic area,” Lang said on Tuesday night. “And it matters to me and my friends because we’ve been recreating on the Lower Deschutes for 25 years.”
Lang said a top concern for Friends of the Columbia Gorge is that first responders across Oregon are “not ready for this.”
In Maupin, Fire Chief Tom Troutman said the fire department needs to know about hazardous materials transported through the community, but has not received reports with that information from BNSF.
“The railroad doesn’t tell us much,” Troutman said. “I know we have asked the railroads for information before, but here we are. We’re a small community. We don’t really have much pull with the railroad.”
Larry Medina, deputy chief of prevention for the Bend Fire Department, said the city has not requested nor has it received information on the types and quantities of hazardous materials BNSF transports through Central Oregon. He said it would not help the fire department to receive the annual reports railways submit to ODOT because “We need real-time information.”
“We’re always going to plan for the worst-case scenario,” Medina said. However, that plan calls for Bend firefighters to evaluate a hazardous material spill from a train, evacuate people if necessary and then likely wait hours for a specially trained and equipped team of firefighters from Salem. Medina said Redmond Fire and Rescue used to maintain a hazardous material response team, but the agency eliminated it within the past five years because of a lack of specially trained staff and resources.
Some Central Oregon residents are worried about the black tanker cars they see parked on the tracks alongside U.S. Highway 97 in Bend. John Wood, a volunteer with The American Red Cross Oregon Mountain River chapter who lives north of Bend, said he noticed a couple of dozen tanker cars in downtown Bend last week.
“It looked like the same car that was on fire that they showed on TV,” Wood said, referring to one of several high-profile oil train derailments across North America. In December, an oil train exploded in Casselton, N.D. On April 30, several tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Lynchburg, Va. Bakken crude oil has proved to be more explosive.
Shelley Snow, a spokeswoman for ODOT, said on Wednesday that the agency is working on rules to require railways to disclose more information about oil shipments. Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order, effective immediately, to require all railways to notify states of train routes and frequencies, for trains that will contain an amount of Bakken crude oil equivalent to approximately 35 tank cars.
Melonas, the BNSF spokesman, said the track along the Lower Deschutes River is not a dangerous area for trains, and the railway is upgrading the track. “Speeds range from 10 mph to 35 mph through the Lower Deschutes corridor,” Melonas said. “It’s not a high-volume line, it’s not a high-speed line and BNSF is currently spending over the next two months millions of dollars by installing 50,000 concrete ties.”
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