The oil-by-rail boom is underway, and with that, several high-profile, fiery derailments.
But state officials don't have the information they need to prepare for an oil train mishap because railroad and oil companies are not required to disclose much on shipments or response strategies.
A boom in the land-locked Bakken oil fields of North Dakota has oil companies turning to the rail industry to move more oil than the country’s pipeline infrastructure can carry.
How many trains of oil are moving through a given region at any given time? What kind of tank cars are being used? What are the companies’ strategies should a train derail or explode?
These questions weren’t raised years ago in the Pacific Northwest.
The increasing use of these rolling pipelines has been accompanied by a series of derailments — from last summer’s deadly explosion in Quebec to a series of train explosions before the New Year in North Dakota and this week in New Brunswick.
The explosions and derailments prompted two key US Senate chairmen — energy panel head Ron Wyden of Oregon and transportation committee chief Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — to send a letter Thursday to the Obama administration urging tougher safety standards.
In 2007, U.S. railroads carried roughly 6,000 car loads of crude oil. By 2012, railroads were moving 234,000 car loads of it per year, according to the Association of American Railroads trade group. That amount, and the portion of it moving through the Northwest, could increase further if legislators pushing to end restrictions on crude exports are successful.
The railroad industry maintains that more than 99 percent of hazardous materials reach their destination safely. But the surge in shipments of Bakken crude, a particularly flammable substance that catches fire at temperatures as low as 73 degrees Fahrenheit, has included a string of explosions. The latest two occurred on Dec. 30 in Casselton, N.D. and on Tuesday in New Brunswick, Canada.
Both of those explosions involved the shipment of crude oil in a black, cylindrical tanker known since the early 1990s to have dangerous design flaws and be subject to “catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.”
The tanker, known as DOT-111, was the subject of a study by the National Transportation Safety Board in 1991, which found it was twice as likely to be punctured as other cars studied. Its poor performance was highlighted in four different oil-by-rail accident investigations since then, prompting a letter to the Department of Transportation in 2012.
The Association of American Railroads established guidelines for updated cars in 2011 and has since petitioned the DOT to require higher standards for new tankers as well as the retrofitting or phasing out of old tankers. DOT is gathering recommendations for updated standards for these tanker cars, but no regulation exists for removing the old cars from the rail system. Outdated DOT-111 cars still account for roughly 85 percent of the 92,000 tank cars hauling flammable liquids across the country.
Oregon and Washington state agencies have no statutory or regulatory control over what passes through the states and how, even if they did have more information on which to act.
“That’s certainly a gap at our state level is the authority that we have at regulating railroad cars,” said Dale Jensen, state Department of Ecology, Spills Program Manager. “These unit trains can come into our state, carry crude oil, along our rivers and streams to their destination and at their appointed destination, at the facility, that’s where my authority begins.”
State officials say they would benefit from more transparency from rail and oil companies when preparing for oil-by-rail accidents.
In November, emergency responders from the region gathered in Portland to discuss the increase of oil shipments through the region and the increased potential for spill that accompanies it. The meeting included the US Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental agencies from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and oil companies and railroads. Railroads are required to keep their own response plans.
BNSF Railway declined an interview for this story, but said by email that the company participated in 20 training session for local emergency responders in Oregon and Washington last year and has invested in new spill equipment that will be placed between Pasco and Vancouver, both Washington cities on the Columbia River.
Aaron Hunt, spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, said the company has identified every fire department along its rail line and communicates regularly with each. He also noted that the crude Union Pacific currently transports through Oregon is not Bakken crude.
“We communicate with them regularly,” Hunt said of local emergency management agencies. “And we feel confident that they are well prepared to respond to an incident should there be one.”
The state agencies charged with preparing response plans say they have gotten little information on the companies’ response strategies.
“They’ve got their own geographic response strategies put in place for their rail lines that they haven’t shared with the folks here in Oregon and our federal partners, because they’re not regulated,” said Bruce Gilles of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
At the November meeting, Gilles said, they established the importance of engaging the rail and oil companies, and that those companies indicated they were willing to be more transparent about their response strategies to help create a single, comprehensive plan.
In Washington, state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, is introducing legislation this session that will require oil and rail companies to regularly update state agencies about oil train routes and quantities of oil moving through the state.
“Fundamentally, communities have a right to know when a substance that potentially is very dangerous is coming through the community,” Farrell said.
She does not expect an easy sell in the legislature: “Whenever we are taking on interest groups, particularly the oil industry, it’s really hard to win.”
At the federal level, the letter from Wyden and Rockefeller comes after Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio’s call for a hearing to investigate the safety of rail cars used to transport hazardous materials.
DeFazio wrote to the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee that “a rulemaking process will take months, if not years and I don’t think Congress should wait.”
Click markers for details. Blue: proposed. Red: underway. Yellow: canceled.