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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Step up Safety of Trains

Congress must back Herrera Beutler bill to reinstate electronic braking rule

The Columbian
Published: January 7, 2019, 6:03am

Although a proposal for an oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver was rejected last year, oil trains continue to roll through Clark County toward their destination. The safety of trains through the heart of Vancouver, near residential neighborhoods and the new Waterfront Vancouver development, remains a concern for local residents.

Because of that, a miscalculation on the part of the Trump administration is noteworthy. In rolling back Obama-era safety measures, U.S. Department of Transportation officials underestimated the effectiveness of those measures and erred on behalf of the railroad industry. The Associated Press reports, “A government analysis used by the administration to justify the cancellation omitted up to $117 million in estimated future damages that could be avoided by using electronic brakes.”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, has introduced legislation to reinstate rules requiring electronic braking on trains carrying either crude oil or flammable liquids. That legislation was introduced before The Associated Press report revealed the miscalculation, and the new information should give lawmakers additional impetus for reinstating the rules. “For the sake of our Columbia River Gorge communities and our environment, we need stronger safety measures when it comes to transporting hazardous materials by rail,” Herrera Beutler said.

In 2015, the Obama administration began requiring electric pneumatic brakes, which work simultaneously on all cars of a train and result in quicker stops and less frequent derailments. Current braking systems deploy sequentially on the cars, and rail safety expert Steven Ditmeyer told The Associated Press: “These ECP brakes are very important for oil trains. It makes a great deal of sense. All the brakes get applied immediately, and there would be fewer cars in the pileup.”

The railroad industry has opposed implementation of the rule, which the Obama administration estimated would cost $664 million over 20 years and save between $470 million and $1.1 billion from accidents that would be avoided. The Trump administration used faulty calculations in overturning the rule, but officials have said they will not change their ruling.

It is no surprise the administration is willing to place citizens and the environment at risk in favor of big business. Trump’s two years in office have been marked by continual assaults on environmental regulations and by any action that has his predecessor’s name linked to it. When it comes to the potential of catastrophic train derailments, this is unconscionable. Oil-bearing trains are using technology that is more than a century old when advanced technology is readily available.

For Southwest Washington, that creates a risk. The state Department of Ecology deems the region a major oil train corridor, with about 546 million gallons of crude moving through the area during the second quarter of 2018. Trains typically travel through the Gorge and through Vancouver before turning toward refineries in the Puget Sound region. That risk was evident in 2016, when 16 cars derailed near Mosier, Ore., in the Gorge, resulting in a fire, the evacuation of the town and an oil sheen on the Columbia River.

Congress should adopt Herrera Beutler’s bill to reinstate the sensible train-safety requirements imposed by the Obama administration. Even without an oil terminal in town, Vancouver and surrounding communities should be protected as much as possible from the danger presented by oil trains.