By Hillary Borrud
Fire officials from across Oregon told Sen. Ron Wyden on Friday they do not have enough money to prepare for an oil train accident.
Wyden, D-Ore., met with first responders and federal and state officials in Bend on Friday to learn what Central Oregon needs in order to be ready for an emergency, after recent media reports revealed the number of crude oil tanker cars transported through the region increased by 58 percent from 2011 to 2013. The closest specially trained and equipped team of firefighters that can handle a hazardous material spill is in Salem, so it would take roughly three hours for them to arrive if there were an oil train derailment in Bend.
Interim State Fire Marshal Jim Walker said, “We can certainly see there’s going to be more of a push to see we have better coverage.” However, the state does not have money for additional hazardous materials response teams, Walker said. Wyden said the solution will require money from all levels of government and the private sector.
“I can tell you right now, my take is everybody’s going to have to step up,” Wyden said.
In April, 16 senators, including Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked for a new fund in the next federal budget to pay for energy transportation-related accidents. Merkley’s field representative attended Friday’s meeting.
Wyden asked Redmond Fire Chief Tim Moor and other officials on Friday to work together on a document detailing how Central Oregon would respond to an oil train accident and what resources it would require for a successful response.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway 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, The Bulletin reported May 8. Officials with the Oregon Department of Transportation believe the oil shipments through Central Oregon are on their way to refineries in California.
Until this month, public officials and activists focused on the huge increase in crude oil shipments through the Columbia River Gorge, and Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee said in January that oil did not appear to be an issue in Central Oregon. Towslee said on Friday that Wyden learned about the increase in oil shipments through Central Oregon via recent reports in The Bulletin.
“We knew about the trains that were coming through the Columbia (Gorge),” Towslee said Friday. “The dramatic growth in the number of those trains sort of drew everybody’s attention away from trains elsewhere.”
Wyden asked local fire officials whether they were able to obtain information about shipments of oil and other hazardous materials. Bill Boos, deputy chief of fire operations for the Bend Fire Department, said he received information from BNSF on Friday about shipments of oil and other hazardous materials. Wyden said the railroad should have provided the data to first responders before the meeting on Friday.
“We can’t just have communities get information when the two United States senators schedule a forum,” Wyden said.
Johan Hellman, executive director of government affairs for BNSF in the Pacific Northwest region, apologized that the city did not receive the information sooner.
“We share this information with a number of communities throughout the region, so I apologize that it’s late in coming here,” Hellman said.
Wyden asked Hellman how much BNSF expects oil train traffic to increase in the next two years, but Hellman said the railway does not project this type of information.
“Senator, it’s impossible to know,” Hellman said. When Wyden continued to push for the information, Hellman said BNSF would contact representatives of the petroleum industry to find out what information is available.
Bend Mayor Jim Clinton suggested federal lawmakers pass legislation assessing a fee on shipments of hazardous materials to raise money for governments to prepare for spills and other emergencies related to the commodities.
“The railroad as you probably know bisects our city,” Clinton said to Wyden. “So I think this issue that has been discussed today is especially worrisome to us. It is not acceptable to have a hazmat team three hours away.”
“At the local level, we have no practical way to plan for and to respond to a massive explosion, massive oil spill or some other kind of spill associated with the railroad going through our city,” Clinton said. “The risk should not be totally handled by the public, when this is essentially a private industry activity.”
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