Gorge Commission hears coal, oil transport update

Representatives from governors’ offices plan to attend Dec. 9 meeting

Representatives from both the Oregon and Washington governors’ offices plan to be in town next week to provide an update on what each state is doing to address coal and oil transport through the Gorge.

On Tuesday morning, the Columbia River Gorge Commission will hold its monthly meeting in Hood River to discuss the issue with state staffers, as well as take written public testimony on the issue.

The transport of fossil fuels through the Gorge is not a new issue, but has gained more exposure in recent years due to plans to construct several coal and oil terminals throughout the Pacific Northwest that would be used to export the commodities to primarily Asian markets. The increase of fossil fuel transport has alarmed some Gorge residents who are concerned about the potential for derailments, explosions, pollution, and impacts the increased traffic could have on access over at-grade rail crossings.

In July, the Gorge Commission passed a resolution that “strongly urge(d)” both Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Washington Governor Jay Inslee to impose a moratorium on “all new fossil fuel transport through the Gorge” until a joint risk assessment had been completed. It also asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to “significantly raise the safety and operational standards for rail cars and other commercial transport vessels to avoid and minimize the risks of hazardous materials transported through the Gorge and across the continent.”

The resolution asked that both governors meet with the Gorge Commission before the end of September to discuss the moratorium. Neither office, however, has enacted a moratorium.

“They’re not responding directly to that at this time,” Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols said last month, “in part because it’s not clear the governors have the authority to enact such a moratorium, but they understand the urgency in addressing the issues.”

Despite the lack of movement on the moratorium, Nichols noted that both governors’ offices had discussed fossil fuel rail transport with the commission this fall in preparation for the December meeting.

“The states have been doing a lot of work on their own already in response to a growing awareness about the volume of materials being transported throughout the Gorge,” he said.

Nichols said a portion of the discussion will address what steps might be taken in order to “protect Gorge resources.” Although he stated that not enough was known yet to determine what the next steps might be, he listed a number of possible actions that could be taken, including reducing train speeds, working with BNSF to monitor the temperature of wheel bearings on the trains, having an adequate supply of emergency equipment and personnel in the appropriate areas, and a bi-state response plan and protection measures in place to ensure the safety of infrastructure and the environment.

Nichols expected the meeting on Tuesday would be the first of additional meetings regarding fossil fuel transport in the Gorge.

“Our hope that this will be the first in a series of discussions with states, local communities, Columbia River tribes, the railroads and other interested parties to address long term solutions that will protect the National Scenic Area from threats that are related to the transport of all hazardous materials in the Gorge,” he said.

The meeting will be held Tuesday, Dec. 9 at the Best Western Plus Hood River Inn at 1108 E. Marina Drive. Discussion about fossil fuel transport is scheduled for 10:30 a.m., although the time may change. The public is invited to submit written comment before then, but no oral testimony will be allowed from the public during the meeting. The agenda for the meeting notes, though, that “the commission will take public testimony at a future meeting when it discusses information it has heard about this issue during this past year from its staff, railroads, tribes, the public, and the states.” Written comments can be submitted in person, via mail at P.O. Box 730, White Salmon, WA 98672, or by email at info@gorge commission.org.

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