Oregon not well prepared for oil-train catastrophe

PORTLAND, Ore. — Trains moved almost 500 million gallons of crude oil alongside Oregon waterways last year, but no state law requires railroad companies to plan for oil spills or contribute to a regional database that tracks caches of emergency response equipment.

The proliferation of oil trains in the Pacific Northwest has increased the risks of a catastrophic spill in the Columbia, Deschutes and Willamette rivers, as well as Upper Klamath Lake, but the state is not well-prepared to respond, the Oregonian reported.

Planning for how to respond to spills is moving slowly, said Scott Knutson, a U.S. Coast Guard oil spill official.

“There’s a lot of equipment,” Knutson said. “It may not yet all be in the right place for the changing transportation picture in the Northwest.”

Last month, a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire near Lynchburg, Virginia, dumping 20,000 gallons of crude into the James River. After the accident, an oil sheen spread 12 miles downriver. Containment booms, floating plastic barriers used to corral spills, weren’t deployed for several hours, Virginia regulators said.

Federal laws pre-empt state authority to regulate railroad companies’ planning for oil spills. But federal law doesn’t require them to plan for worst-case accidents. Railroads don’t have to share information with state officials who make sure Oregon is ready for an oil spill. Railroads have instead promised to volunteer information, then failed to do it.

“It’d be better if we had a legal way to tell them to do it, but we don’t,” said Don Pettit, an emergency-response planner at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “A lot of it ends up being voluntary. Often we’re told, ‘We’ll get that to you,’ or ‘We’ll check into it,’ but we don’t get it.”

The Columbia River is better prepared than some Oregon waterways. Because barges have long moved petroleum products on the river, spill-containment caches are kept in strategic places by nonprofit cooperatives.

Ships moving oil on waterways are more strictly regulated than railroads moving oil next to them. Ships are required to have emergency equipment at the ready, and containment booms must be on scene within two hours of an accident. But railroad companies are exempt, and their response capabilities are unclear.

Union Pacific keeps 15,000 feet of boom in Portland, but its rail lines run from Portland east to Idaho and south to California. In the event of an accident, Union Pacific could call on help from the Army Corps of Engineers, which stores boom equipment at its dams and reservoirs throughout the state, said Aaron Hunt, a company spokesman.

But the Army Corps said it could not respond to an oil train accident unless it had been declared a federal emergency under the authority of Oregon’s governor, which takes time after a derailment.

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