Enviro group questions oil spill response plans

Plan for lower Deschutes River among those questioned

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published May 16, 2014 at 12:01AM

An environmental group says the state’s spill response plans for the lower Deschutes River and other bodies of water around the state are inadequate due to the increase of crude oil trains coming through Central Oregon.

The plans — crafted by government agencies and companies, such as railroads — are called geographic response plans and are “woefully out of date,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for the Portland-based Friends of the Columbia Gorge. The plan for the lower Deschutes River is a decade old, and it is the newest in Oregon.

“I think statewide in Oregon plans are insufficient to respond to this influx of Bakken oil trains,” he said.

The number of tanker cars carrying oil through Bend and other Oregon towns east of the Cascades went up by 58 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to information released by the Oregon Department of Transportation this month. Much of that oil is likely from the Bakken Formation, below portions of Montana, North Dakota and Canada, and headed to refineries in California, said Don Pettit, emergency response planner for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Over the past year, oil trains have been involved in dramatic explosions in Canada and North Dakota. Early this month, tanker cars from an oil train tumbled into the James River in Virginia.

While the increase of oil trains coming through Central Oregon has increased the risk of derailments and spills, Pettit said the response plan for the lower Deschutes River adequately outlines how the railroad, state and federal agencies would respond to such incidents.

“… It is not really the type of risk (that’s changed),” he said. “It is just the scale of the risk.”

The DEQ teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to create the response plan for the lower Deschutes River, which was completed in October 2004. The plan sets the strategy for spill response and details where equipment, such as floating booms to corral oil in a river, is stored and how it would be deployed.

Although the plan is a decade old, Pettit said it is the most recent one in the state, so there are no plans to update it.

“We have others that are in much more need of an update,” he said.

The DEQ and other agencies are working on an update of the response plan for the lower Columbia River, Pettit said. Part of the reason the plan there is being updated is because there is new information about animals in harm’s way.

Lang, who spotted an oil train passing along the lower Deschutes River this month, is not alone in his concern about what would happen to the river if there were a derailment and an oil spill. Greg Burke, 67, of Bend said he also recently saw what appeared to be a long oil train next to the river.

“All it would take is for one of those (tanker cars) to drop into the river and it would be over for the lower Deschutes,” said Burke, a former fly fishing guide.

He said he used to guide anglers on the river, which is known for its steelhead runs. Burke worries about the impact an oil spill would have on the fish.

The topic of oil trains passing through the state caught the attention of Gov. John Kithzaber, who put out a call to state agencies to work together on emergency plans for response to train wrecks, said Cory Grogan, spokesman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

“It is very important for us all to be able to communicate,” he said.

Along with the concerns about oil spills there’s the danger of explosions if the trains come off the tracks. Pettit, the DEQ official, said Bakken crude oil has proven to be more explosive than other types of crude oil. The oil has butane, the gas used in cigarette lighters, and other volatile gases in it.

Response to a crude oil fire would start with a local fire agency, which would then call in help if needed, said Rich Hoover, spokesman for the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal.

“It’s really all based on the type of incident,” he said.

This could include a hazardous materials team. Hoover said there are 13 such teams around the state but none based in Central Oregon.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com