State officials hope to attain a clearer understanding of how much information they can legally require railways to disclose on oil and other hazardous materials shipments, with the help of a committee set to begin meeting later this month.
Dave Howe, a battalion chief with the Bend Fire Department who has trained to respond to hazardous materials spills , will represent the city on the committee, whose first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 26. The group includes representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, an environmental group, railways, the city of Portland, the city of Rainier, Washington, Columbia County and the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association, according to Howe and an Oregon Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
The presence of oil shipments through Central Oregon is increasingly obvious. On Monday morning, City Councilor Sally Russell said she counted 48 tankers in the oil train parked on a track in downtown Bend. ODOT is still working out the details of what officials will discuss at the meeting.
Russell said information about hazardous materials shipments is one of the keys to preparedness for communities that need to be ready in case of a spill.
“If you don’t know what’s coming and you don’t know when it’s coming, and if you have no money to have the right type of preparedness to respond, you’re not in a very good place to handle a disaster,” Russell said. “If something were to happen in the community, it just has the potential to be so devastating.”
Russell said new information about oil train traffic has already started to change public policy.
“Clearly, that whole sense — this is an issue, instead of something we don’t have to worry about, has shifted in such a short period of time,” Russell said.
ODOT spokeswoman Shelley Snow said Monday that revelations that oil-by-rail traffic increased through Oregon prompted the state to seek a better understanding of how much information it can compel railway companies to share. In May, “when everyone started realizing how much more oil is coming into the state, that’s when our director, Matt Garrett, said we have to put something together to figure out what the (state reporting) rule says,” Snow said. “It was basically unclear when (railways are) supposed to report what, to whom, by what date.”
One concern among state officials was that they lacked authority to enforce reporting requirements, because the Federal Railroad Administration regulates the companies. Snow said ODOT employees hope the committee will help the state reach a more explicit understanding of the type of hazardous cargo information Oregon should seek from railways.
Howe said he also hopes the oil industry will stop using older, inadequate tankers to transport oil, particularly crude from the Bakken region of western North Dakota, eastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan that has proved to be more volatile.
“My understanding is the rail cars they’re transporting a lot of the crude oil in are deficient in design for this kind of material,” Howe said.
Howe said the concerns that communities have raised about oil car design could lead to safety improvements similar to those adopted four decades ago after a series of liquefied gas tanker explosions, such as a propane car explosion that killed 11 firefighters and a gas company employee in Kingman, Arizona.
“The oil industry needs to do the same thing, and I think they will,” Howe said of the propane car safety improvements.
At the same time, Howe said he did not expect oil train traffic to stop.
“They’re not going to stop shipping oil by rail,” Howe said. “That’s just going to keep happening, and that’s just part of the world.”
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