Oregon official talks oil trains

Head of rail division discusses new oil train rules balancing information-sharing and security

By Hillary Borrud / The Bulletin

REDMOND — The head of Oregon’s rail division met with local officials in Redmond on Thursday, a day after the state transportation agency released information that revealed crude oil shipments through Central Oregon have increased dramatically in recent years.

Howard Gard, administrator of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rail and Public Transit Division, said the agency is working to update rules that require railways to share more information about crude-by-rail shipments through the state. Gard said the new rules should balance the public’s need to know about oil train traffic with rail security “and a certain level of accountability.”

Nick Arnis, director of the city of Bend Growth Management Department, asked Gard how the city fire marshal can obtain information about the amount of crude transported through Bend and the frequency of these trains.

“I would encourage that you concentrate on the safety aspects of this,” Arnis said.

Gard did not answer Arnis’ question, but said ODOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation are still catching up to the boom in U.S. oil production, when it comes to gathering information and regulating shipment of the commodity.

“It’s taken quite awhile to understand there actually is a higher level of volatility with the Bakken crude,” Gard said, referring to oil from North Dakota. Gard said it will take three to six months for the state to update rules to implement a law that requires railways to provide information about hazardous cargo to first responders. “We’ve got to play out where our state statutes might be pre-empted by federal law,” Gard said.

On April 23, ODOT Director Matthew Garrett wrote a letter in which he directed Gard to speed up work on new rules on crude-by-rail information sharing.

“The updated rules will align with statutory direction and impose firm timelines for the railroads to provide information,” Garrett wrote. Garrett also wrote an April 24 letter to all railroads operating in Oregon, instructing them to obey the law that already requires the companies to share information about hazardous materials shipments.

“As laid out in (state rules), each railroad that transports hazardous materials within the state must provide an annual report to each emergency response agency along their rail lines that includes information about hazardous material shipments from the preceding calendar year,” Garrett wrote.

Federal officials also have moved to require more information from rail companies. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order, effective immediately, that requires all railways operating trains with more than 1 million gallons of crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota — the equivalent of approximately 35 tank cars — to notify state emergency response commissions of the estimated volumes of oil transported, frequency of expected train traffic and train route.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is transporting increasingly large numbers of crude oil tankers along the line that runs from the Columbia River south through Central Oregon to the California border, according to information ODOT released to The Bulletin on Wednesday. Last year, BNSF transported more than 4,300 tanker cars of crude oil through Central Oregon, approximately 23 percent of the total of more than 19,000 carloads of crude transported on railways through the state in 2013, the state agency said. That equates to a 58 percent increase from 2011, when BNSF moved more than 2,700 crude-by-rail cars through Central Oregon, according to ODOT.

A BNSF spokesman has said repeatedly the railway does not release information to the public about the types and quantities of materials it transports through communities, for security reasons and because it considers it privileged customer information. Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF based in the Pacific Northwest, on Wednesday said, “The Oregon trunk line (through Central Oregon) is not a high-volume crude oil line.”

ODOT spokeswoman Shelley Snow said on Thursday the federal order on crude-by-rail information will not affect Oregon’s effort to update its own rules on the subject.

“It does not take the pressure off of us or what efforts we’re doing,” Snow said. “We can try to put forth what we want, and some of it may take. And you don’t ever know what the federal government is going to do, so you have to protect your own.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a news release Wednesday the federal agency’s announcement “sounds like a positive step toward filling the information void first responders have described, but I’m going to take a closer look at the order to see how it would help communities.”

Wyden and 15 other senators asked in April for a new fund in the next federal budget to pay for energy transportation-related accidents, such as oil train derailments that have gained national attention. Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said on Thursday this is only a proposal at this early stage in the budget process.

— Reporter: 541-617-7829, hborrud@bendbulletin.com