The Chinook salmon that Randy Settler and other Yakama tribal fishermen are pulling from the Columbia River are large and plentiful this summer, part of one of the biggest spawning runs since the 1960s. It is a sign, they say, of the river’s revitalization, through pollution regulations and ambitious fish hatchery programs.
But barely 4 miles upstream from the fishermen’s nets, state workers still are cleaning up after a major oil train derailment in June. About 47,000 gallons of heavy Bakken crude bound from North Dakota spilled when 16 Union Pacific cars accordioned off the tracks.
All of it, Oregon environmental officials said, might have gone into the river but for a stroke of luck that carried the oil instead into a water treatment plant a few hundred feet from the riverbank.
That juxtaposition – the rebounding river coming a hair’s breadth from disaster – has resonated across the Pacific Northwest and brought about a day of reckoning. From ballot boxes to the governors’ desks in Oregon and Washington, a corner of the nation that seemed poised only a few years ago to become a new energy hub is now gripped by a debate over whether transporting volatile, hazardous crude oil by rail through cities and environmentally delicate areas can ever be made safe enough.
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The idea that the Northwest is now bearing a disproportionate burden of energy transport risk has accelerated local efforts to stop the trains or make them safer.
“Communities around this state have awoken,” said Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, a Democrat. Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, who is also a Democrat, said he thinks that all oil transit should be halted until more stringent track inspection rules can be put into place. “Can it be transported into the Pacific Northwest safely?” he said. “That answer now is no.”
The volume of oil being shipped by rail across most of the rest of the nation has plummeted, as low oil prices and more pipeline capacity have reduced the need for trains. The number of rail cars carrying petroleum is down about 40 percent from the peak in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.
But here along the Columbia River gorge, about 60 miles east of Portland, the trains have continued to rumble through Oregon and Washington in numbers near their peak. Even with lower oil prices, railroad industry experts said, crude heading by rail to refineries in the Pacific Northwest has a shorter distance to travel from North Dakota, making the route cost effective.
In the tense environment since the derailment, the idea that the Northwest is now bearing a disproportionate burden of energy transport risk has accelerated local efforts to stop the trains or make them safer.
Last month, the City Council in Vancouver, Washington, where one of the biggest oil terminals in the nation is under review, voted to ban any similar proposals from even being considered in the future.
In Spokane, a city built by the railroad industry and one through which almost all oil trains pass, voters will decide in November whether to outlaw that transit. The City Council voted to put the proposal on the ballot, mandating a $261 fine for every rail car carrying oil or coal, even though the railroads have said they would file a lawsuit to overturn the statute as a violation of interstate commerce.
Both of Oregon’s United States senators have proposed the legislation, called The Mosier Act, that would require the Department of Transportation to reduce levels of volatile gases in crude oil and give greater teeth and resources to crash investigators.
These trains are basically operating with a braking system from the Civil War era, and we have said to the railroads, ‘You must upgrade.’
Sarah E. Feinberg, the administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration
Greater transparency in oil shipments is also on the horizon. Railroads generally have refused to divulge specific oil train schedules, citing security concerns, but starting in October, details about every oil train through Washington will have to be shared with state officials, who will then distribute reports to emergency management agencies through a secure system. The information will be shared with the public on a quarterly basis, starting in December.
Inslee, who is running for re-election, as is Brown in Oregon, will have the authority under state law to decide whether the oil terminal in Vancouver will go forward, a question that could reach his desk this fall. He said that he is keeping an open mind and awaiting the recommendation from the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which wrapped up a month of hearings on the terminal last week.
Some environmental groups already are calling the Vancouver project all but dead, saying that an approval by Inslee would run counter to the governor’s often-expressed convictions about climate change – not to mention the book he wrote on the virtues of renewable energy – and would also mean imposing a project on a city that has said it does not want it. Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, announced his opposition to the terminal on Friday, the last day of the hearings.
“For the railroads, the politics have turned for the worse,” said Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group in Seattle.
Railroads and oil companies said they have responded to public concerns and that oil transport can be safe.
A spokesman for Union Pacific, Aaron Hunt, said in an email that lag bolts – a track-fastening system that failed in Mosier, according to the preliminary federal investigation – are being replaced with more secure rail spikes and that the railroad had enhanced its inspection processes.
Dan Riley, a spokesman for Tesoro Petroleum, a partner in the Vancouver terminal project, said the company has been a leader in shifting to newer, more secure tank cars and that the attention since the Mosier accident will only accelerate those safety enhancements.
“It’s an opportunity to improve the entire system,” he said in an interview.
But railroads also have resisted rules that might have mitigated the Mosier accident and other derailments around the country, said Sarah E. Feinberg, the administrator at the Federal Railroad Administration, specifically outfitting trains with modern braking systems, called electronically controlled pneumatic braking.
“These trains are basically operating with a braking system from the Civil War era, and we have said to the railroads, ‘You must upgrade,’ ” she said. “And we get a tremendous amount of pushback from the industry: It’s too expensive, it’s too complicated, it’s logistically complicated.”
Tribal fishermen such as Settler, 61, who has been piloting boats on the Columbia River since he was 9, said he fears that for the river, the worst is not over. State officials said recently that oil from the spill had seeped into the groundwater, which connects with the river. In any case, Settler said, it is clear to him that human failure and inadequate track maintenance, not bad luck, caused the crash.
“They knew it was a high-risk area,” Settler said on his boat on a recent morning off Mosier’s shoreline. “But it didn’t stop the trains from coming.”