After prompts from the public during recent meetings, the Columbia River Gorge Commission has taken a stance on oil and other fossil fuel transported by rail through the Gorge.
In a resolution issued after its regular meeting earlier this month, the Gorge Commission “strongly urges” Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Washington Governor Jay Inslee “to impose a moratorium on all new fossil fuel transport through the Gorge” until the appropriate agencies and communities “have jointly completed a comprehensive risk assessment” in order to mitigate potential impacts.
The resolution also “strongly urges” 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.”
Although the resolution refers to fossil fuels in general, several paragraphs of the three-page resolution make specific mention of coal and oil transport — two fossil fuel commodities currently shipped through the Gorge that have attracted increasing attention over the past few years. The attention is due in part to a Bakken crude oil boom currently taking place in North Dakota and Montana, but more so due to concerns raised over oil train derailments (see above story) and explosions that have resulted in the loss of life and property in North America in recent years. Numerous proposals for refineries and coal terminals in the Northwest would also likely result in increased rail traffic, adding to concerns.
Darren Nichols, executive director of the Gorge Commission, said commissioners share similar concerns, who, in their resolution, characterized the transport of coal and oil as practices that “present unacceptable risks to Gorge resources and threaten the health, safety and economy of Gorge communities.” He added the commission has spoken with “several local emergency responders” and concluded that “these communities don’t have the tools, equipment, or training” to respond to a large disaster such as an oil spill, which can require the use of specialized foam to extinguish.
The commissioners aren’t the only ones to raise this concern. Nichols said Insitu, which just opened its new facility at Bingen Point last month, has pointed out “that in the event of a derailment or some other kind of catastrophe along the rail lines in Bingen, they recognize that the local first responders would be unlikely able to evacuate Bingen Point,” due to the fact that the Insitu facility is sandwiched between the BNSF rail lines and the Columbia River.
So far, Nichols said governmental agencies, as well as BNSF and Union Pacific — the railroad that runs through the Oregon side of the Gorge — have been “very responsive” about discussing the issue, although he criticized the “lack of information about the size of risks” that’s been provided.
“As long as we don’t understand the risks that we’re facing… that uncertainty alone is unacceptable,” he said. “We should, at a minimum, understand the threat.”
Nichols called the moratorium “a big request,” and doesn’t know whether the governors have the authority to even enact one, but hopes the resolution gets their attention. He said members of the governors’ offices were “anxious to see the resolution,” but hadn’t responded as of late Wednesday afternoon.
The resolution requests that the governors and state agencies meet with the Gorge Commission and staff no later than the end of September to discuss the issue.
“I think that level of urgency is the statement the (Gorge) Commission wanted to make,” Nichols said of the September deadline.