In Our View: Heed Red Flags of Oil by Rail

Spill record, other factors should increase scrutiny of port's terminal plan

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The latest information about the safety of oil-bearing trains reinforces an earlier conclusion: The Port of Vancouver’s plans to build an oil terminal should be viewed with a jaundiced eye.

According to a report released this week by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents this past year than the combined amount in the previous four decades that such data has been tracked. More than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled in 2013, and that doesn’t include the 1.5 million gallons spilled in a Canadian derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

In short, the oil and rail industries are doing a poor job of convincing Clark County residents that it would be beneficial to bring as much as 380,000 barrels of crude a day down the Columbia River Gorge to a facility in Vancouver. That is the plan that was approved last summer by port commissioners, who reached an agreement with Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil terminal that would pay at least $45 million to the port over the first 10 years of the deal.

The proposal will undergo a review from the state before Gov. Jay Inslee renders the final decision. In editorial opposition to the plan, The Columbian has written, “Because of the proposal’s vast, long-lasting impact upon Vancouver, every possible environmental and economic factor should be considered. If that happens, the final decision will be no contest.”

The latest news confirms that opinion. Last year’s number of 1.15 million gallons of spilled crude dwarfs the total of 800,000 gallons from 1975 to 2012, and it reflects the fact that the oil industry is not effectively managing its new penchant for transporting crude oil by rail. Even discounting major incidents in Alabama and North Dakota, last year’s total spill was more than 11,000 gallons in the United States — the highest on record. Until recently, rail lines were infrequently used for oil transportation, and advocates will point out that 99.99 percent of shipments last year arrived without any problems. In a letter to the editor published in The Columbian, Tesoro-Savage general manager Jared Larrabee wrote, “We stand ready to discuss additional measures that (the environmental review board), Gov. Jay Inslee or federal agencies feel are necessary for safe transportation and handling of crude oil.”

They better start talking, because despite a 99.99 percent success rate, concerns remain. When discussing the transportation of crude oil near residential and commercial areas, along Vancouver’s Columbia River waterfront and within a stone’s throw of major freeways, anything short of a perfect record should be given close consideration by state officials.

Last week, according to the The Associated Press, federal regulators met with railroad and oil industry representatives to discuss making changes on how crude is shipped. Possible alterations involve tank car design, operating speed and appropriate routing. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said possible changes would be announced within the next 30 days. Clearly, changes are necessary. While most crude is transported safely, it doesn’t require much imagination to picture the permanent impact that one disaster can have on a community.

If the federal government is indicating that changes need to be made in how crude oil is shipped by train, and if catastrophic spills are being recorded, and if the proposal would bring trains through the heart of Vancouver, then spilling more than 1 million gallons in a year is not a strong selling point for the oil industry.