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Oil train explosions raise concerns close to home

Four wrecks since July have prompted local, national reviews of safe practices


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Railroad tracks cut through the asphalt along A Street in downtown Rainier, arguably the most dangerous rail crossing on the Portland and Western line.Since July, four high-profile incidents in which trains carrying crude oil caught fire or exploded have taken place in North America.

The first, a derailment and explosion in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 and leveled much of the lakefront community's downtown core, met with worry from some in Oregon — including Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole, who told the Spotlight shortly after the July 6 incident that he was concerned about a replay of the disaster in his city.

Mike Williams, director of corporate communications at Genesee & Wyoming Inc., which owns the Portland and Western Railroad, downplayed the possibility of such an occurrence after the Lac-Mégantic derailment. In an email interview with the Spotlight in July, Williams cited his company's “normal, continuously improving safety program to ensure that G&W railroads have the right people, operating procedures, equipment and track conditions to prevent train accidents.”

Four months later, in the United States, another oil train derailed and exploded in rural western Alabama on Nov. 8, spilling oil into the surrounding wetlands. The owner of that train was Genesee & Wyoming. Williams wrote in an email Wednesday, Jan. 8, that the cause of the derailment is still under investigation.

Less than two months after that, an oil train struck a derailed freight train near Casselton, N.D., on Monday, Dec. 30, sending up a massive fireball and forcing the town's evacuation.

All three trains that exploded last year were carrying light crude oil from the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota — the same kind of oil that moves through Columbia County on the P&W line on a near-daily basis. Federal regulators announced Thursday, Jan. 2, that they are looking into whether Bakken crude is measurably more volatile than other types of crude oil.

A fourth train carrying crude oil and propane derailed and burst into flames near the New Brunswick village of Plaster Rock Tuesday night. At least 150 residents evacuated their homes as the train burned and sent up clouds of black smoke, according to media reports. That train reportedly carried oil from western Canada, into which the Bakken shale extends, although it was not immediately clear whether the oil was Bakken light crude.

Columbia City resident Jim Lichatowich did not mention the New Brunswick derailment as he addressed a Port Commission meeting for the Port of St. Helens Wednesday, but he noted the common source of the oil that exploded aboard the three trains last year.

“The oil trains now going through Columbia County are carrying the same [Bakken] crude,” Lichatowich said. “And that sets up the condition, I think, for the possibility of a major, catastrophic accident, if the accident occurs in one of these residential or business areas that the train tracks are in close proximity to.”

Lichatowich asked the port commissioners what plans are in place to deal with potential emergencies on the P&W line. While commission President Robert Keyser, who also serves on the board of the Clatskanie Rural Fire District, declined to answer during the open session of the meeting, he agreed to speak to Lichatowich after the meeting, with the Spotlight's reporter present.

“I share your concerns,” Keyser told Lichatowich, adding a few minutes later, “Every day, I worry, and every day, I read about what happens, and it bothers me. But … the answer isn't to stop doing it, but to try and do it safely.”

Keyser and all four of his fellow port commissioners voted Nov. 13, less than a week after the Alabama derailment, to increase the number of trains allowed to use the rail lead at Port Westward — effectively increasing the maximum allowable oil train traffic through Columbia County — at the request of Global Partners LP, the Massachusetts-based company that owns the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery.

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - A DOT-111 tank car, the most common rail car for flammable liquid transport in the United States and Canada, in a train moving east along Highway 30.Global did not return an email requesting comment, but Rainier's Mayor Cole said P&W and Global have been “responsive” to city officials' concerns.

But Cole acknowledged that he still worries about what could happen if there were a rail disaster in his city, or in any other community along the line.

“All of the communities on this rail line need to be concerned,” said Cole. “With the accidents that happened, it brings things to light. … Hopefully, we can all learn from it … and come up with some solutions to make sure that doesn't happen again.”

If a similar trainwreck happened in any city on the P&W, Cole said, “It would be devastating.”

Underequipped responders steeling for crisis

No individual fire district in the area is equipped to handle a major incident of the sort that happened three times last year, Keyser said Wednesday, but the fire districts are working amongst themselves and with P&W to prepare for such a crisis. He pointed to the successful evacuation of Casselton after the North Dakota wreck last month as a model.

“If, God forbid, we have an incident, that's what I'd like to see,” Keyser said.

Jay Tappan, fire chief for Columbia River Fire & Rescue, told the Spotlight that petroleum fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish once they start, and especially if they spread. Right now, he admitted, fire districts in south Columbia County do not have enough firefighting foam to counter a large fire aboard an oil train.

“It takes a lot of water and specialized [aqueous film forming] foam,” Tappan said. “We're working on getting some stocks of that, by the way.”

The county's fire districts are also planning a joint session to practice responding to rail emergencies, with a special tank car used for safety training. Keyser and Tappan said that training will likely take place within the next few weeks.

If an explosive derailment occurred within CRF&R's service district, which spans from Rainier to Warren, Tappan said the agency would respond with all its resources and immediately call for support from neighboring fire districts, perhaps as far afield as Kelso, Wash., or Tigard.

“Yes, we are concerned, but we also feel that we have a pretty good capability to respond to a wide array of things, and we certainly have a lot of backup,” said Tappan.

Speaking with Keyser and Lichatowich Wednesday morning, Port of St. Helens Executive Director Patrick Trapp argued that conditions on the P&W are not the same as those on the lines where derailments occurred last year.

Oil trains on the P&W are not supposed to exceed 25 mph, with the speed limit as low as 10 mph in some areas, including through Rainier and St. Helens.

“All of the previous accidents were higher speed than 10 to 25 miles per hour,” Trapp said. “There's a lot of differences in what we have here compared to those.”

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - A unit train of tank cars travels through Scappoose on Thursday, Jan. 9, on the Portland and Western Railroad.Railroad, industry groups highlight safety, but work ahead

Williams, the G&W spokesman, called the P&W “unequivocally a safe railroad” Wednesday. He highlighted G&W and P&W efforts to ensure rail safety, such as testing rails for defects, sending ahead crews to reconnoiter the track ahead of oil trains on the P&W, and conducting employee safety training to prevent injuries.

“The consolidated injury frequency rate at G&W railroads is better than any large U.S. railroad and four times safer than the short line industry average,” Williams wrote. “This is a key measure, because the attention to detail required to eliminate injuries translates to every aspect of the operation and results in safe, efficient and well-run railroads.”

The freight rail industry and federal regulators are also responding to the spate of incidents.

Last November, days after the G&W train exploded in Alabama, the Association of American Railroads — a trade group formed to promote and advocate for the rail industry — released a statement calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to adopt new standards for tank cars.

The AAR considers the DOT-111 tank cars, commonly seen carrying crude oil, ethanol and other liquids on the P&W, to be deficient and is suggesting they be removed from service carrying flammable liquids. DOT-111 cars were involved in all four recent oil train wrecks.

“We believe it’s time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and chief executive officer, in the group's statement. “Our goal is to ensure that what we move, and how we move it, is done as safely as possible.”

AAR spokeswoman Holly Arthur said Tuesday that the timing of the statement so soon after the Alabama derailment was “coincidental.” The AAR has asked the federal government to increase safety standards for tank cars in the past, she noted.

“It's not unprecedented for us to have done that,” Arthur said.

As proposed, the regulations would force some 78,000 tank cars — out of a total of 92,000 the AAR estimates are in flammable-liquid service — to be retrofitted or phased out, according to the November statement.

The Railroad Supply Institute, which represents owners of freight cars in the U.S. rail network, has also urged the federal government to adopt the proposed tank car standards.

Arthur said the railroads and their suppliers are working to improve rail safety, as evidenced by the call for heightened tank car standards and procedural reforms made since the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

“We do have a long history and track record for moving hazardous materials of all kinds, not just crude oil,” Arthur said, adding, “We're always looking to innovate and find new ways to improve safety.”

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, called the derailments last year “horrifying,” but she defended the overall safety record of the railroads. She compared the rail industry to aviation, a field in which she has an extensive background.

“There are horrific crashes that are big, there is loss of life, they are widely reported in the press, they have enormous impact on, certainly, the passengers, and also on the places where they occur. But overall, if you look at the aviation system in the United States, it is, statistically, remarkably safe,” Johnson said. “The same could be said of the railroad industry.”

Federal regulators and the railroads themselves are responding appropriately to the recent derailments, Johnson said.

“I am comforted by the fact that our national regulatory bodies for rail safety … are looking at these issues,” said Johnson. “I have every reason to believe that if there are issues, they will make recommendations, and the industry will comply.”

Not all that burns is Bakken crude

Rail mishaps involving hazardous material are not unheard of on the P&W line.

In 2011, a freight train derailed and struck a tank car full of denatured alcohol near Burlington, in between Portland and Scappoose. The car caught fire, prompting the closure of Highway 30 for several hours while emergency responders battled the blaze. Portland Hazardous Material Control and Removal was also summoned to assess environmental damage.

“That was a real good comparator, because we got a lot of people on that really fast,” Tappan said, recounting the crash.

Williams described the 2011 incident as “to my knowledge the first significant hazmat release on any G&W railroad since the company was founded in 1899.” He said the railroad has since made “operational changes” to prevent a rerun of that collision.

Proposed tank car upgrades and other safety improvements are intended to better secure all hazardous cargo on the railroad, not just oil, Arthur said.

Keyser named the Dyno Nobel fertilizer plant in Deer Island and the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Wauna among other users of the P&W that occasionally transport hazardous materials by rail.