When a proposed oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver was rejected last year, there were no illusions that it would mean the end of oil trains traveling through the Northwest. Oil remains a linchpin of the global economy, and the West Coast remains a crucial departure point for the transportation of crude.
Therefore, the expansion of a terminal in Portland highlights the importance of efforts by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, to ensure rigourous safety measures for oil-bearing trains.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported last week that Zenith Energy is expanding its operations and that the move “sets the stage to more than double the number of oil trains along the Columbia and Willamette rivers into Oregon’s biggest city.” Zenith is in the city’s industrial northwest area, across the Willamette River from the University of Portland.
Three new platforms will nearly quadruple the facility’s capacity for offloading oil from tanker cars and onto ocean-going vessels. OPB reports that the expansion will allow Zenith to handle multiple oil trains per week; through all of 2018, it handled fewer than 30 trains. Records indicate that most of the oil comes from Canada’s oil sands, although company officials decline to say what kind of crude will be arriving at the terminal.
Construction plans were filed with the City of Portland in 2014. In 2016, the city council voted to oppose any new fossil fuel infrastructure, joining a growing number of cities that are rejecting such projects.
The expansion follows a decision by the Trump administration to roll back safety measures on trains carrying oil or other hazardous material. In September, the Department of Transportation halted implementation of a 2015 rule requiring oil trains to be equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes while phasing out traditional air brakes.
In December, The Associated Press reported that a government analysis prior to the decision miscalculated the potential risks of continuing to use air brakes. Transportation spokesperson Bobby Fraser said: “This was an unintentional error. With the correction, in all scenarios costs still outweigh benefits.”
We disagree. The costs of a catastrophic train derailment are enormous, and those costs are indefensible if they could be prevented by updated braking systems.
In 2013, a derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and destroyed the town. In 2010, heavy Canadian crude spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, leading to a $1 billion cleanup. In 2016, a derailment in Mosier, Ore., sparked a massive fire and spilled crude into the Columbia River. The list goes on and on, demonstrating the need for the strictest possible safety measures.
Because of that, Herrera Beutler has reintroduced legislation that would reinstate the 2015 regulations for brakes. “With trains carrying hazardous materials through Southwest Washington, it is paramount we increase safety for the nearby communities,” she said. “I’m committed to reversing the decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ease this critical safety regulation.”
In releasing its decision, the Trump administration capitulated to the desires of the railroad industry and concerns about the cost of installing new brakes. In so doing, it ignored the safety concerns of communities along railroad tracks.
Oil trains are a fact of life in this region and will continue to be. That fact requires Congress to take all reasonable steps for ensuring safety.