Herrera Beutler pushes to help first responders

Congresswoman backs effort to help local agencies get resources needed to face oil train incidents

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer

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U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler is championing a measure to help first responders prepare for an oil-by-rail spill or explosion.

On Friday morning, she listened to local fire officials express the challenges they face, from understaffing to limited financial resources, and their desire to develop regional coordinated responses for hazardous material incidents.

The measure Herrera Beutler is advocating would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency to consider grant requests for hazmat operations, including training and planning, a priority.

Herrera Beutler called it a “common-sense definition change” that should gain approval.

The Camas Republican noted there are federal funds available for equipment, but coordinating and planning haven’t been prioritized to the same degree.

“So, we said, ‘Great, let’s change the definition and allow you to be able to apply for and get planning dollars that help you coordinate, in case we have, God forbid, a major spill,’ ” Herrera Beutler said.

In recent years, the state has seen a dramatic spike in oil-by-rail traveling through communities, from zero gallons in 2011 to more than 700 million in 2013.

“These oil trains come through here. Whether they get permitted to offload or not, they’re still coming through,” Herrera Beutler said.

Port of Vancouver commissioners have approved a lease to allow construction of the country’s largest oil terminal, and on April 15 apparently extended a deadline in the lease, though so far officials have suppressed the documents.

Current federal restrictions in the Assistance to Firefighter Grant program prevent the Vancouver Fire Department — and communities across the country — from accessing the resources they say they need to prepare for a hazardous materials incident.

Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina led Herrera Beutler on a tour around Vancouver Fire Department Station 10. He showed her the current response equipment, which includes a vehicle and trailer equipped to spread flame suppressant foam.

Molina said he’s hoping the legislation makes it into law, saying the coordination and planning element is key. It would help different agencies coordinate and discuss what resources they have collectively and how they would tackle an accident. Molina estimated Vancouver might request about $300,000 through the grant program, which would also help local agencies evaluate the risks they could face.

Molina said the goal would be to “talk about how (to) optimize what we have … And is there a gap?”