CGCAN forum on oil trains yields stark numbers, muted optimism

Action Network looks to limit regional fuel export terminals

Oil and coal transport opponents rallied some dramatic numbers in a multimedia forum Monday convened by the Columbia Gorge Climate Action Network at Riverside Community Church.

Advocates spoke of fighting the construction of new coal and oil terminals in the region, in order to limit the amount and therefore the dangers of transporting fossil fuel through the Gorge and working to ensure that existing terminals are forced to adhere to all regulations. Potentially, those transports would include trains filled with the highly-flammable Bakken oil from North Dakota.

‘Exponential’ effect

Mayor Arthur Babitz also spoke in the forum, presenting a summary of a Gorge-wide survey on oil train disaster readiness among jurisdictions along the Columbia River.

“Adding Bakken crude oil to the mix of hazardous materials passing through the Gorge is not an incremental increase in the overall hazard,” Babitz said. “The quantities and the volatility of the material lead to an exponential increase in the hazard.”

In the Weekend Edition, June 21, read more of Babitz’s remarks about regional readiness.

“It’s a question of what can we do right now to stop the oil trains, and it really gets at the terminals,” Loren Goldberg, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, told the audience of about 40 people gathered in the sanctuary.

“Our choices in the coming years will impact our region’s health and safety, even while they shape our planet’s future,” stated a 3-minute film from the Seattle nonprofit research firm Sightline, presented by opening speaker Peter Cornelison and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, an active participant in the Network, also known as of CGCAN. (The coalition went through various “No Coal” names before formally adopting the new name a month ago.)

Cornelison said the potential figures are these: 110 million tons of coal and 280 million barrels of oil a year shipped by rail and river through the Gorge, 36 more coal trains a day, and 21 for oil, if proposed terminals in Longview and Bellingham and Morrow County in Oregon are built out and put to full use.

“It’s hard to imagine the scale of these projects, but it’s immense,” he said.

Cornelison said his figures are extrapolated from research by Sightline, which he said “has done a great job of drilling down to get the real details.”

“It’s not a matter of if an oil spill would happen on the Columbia, but when,” Goldberg said. Her group’s work is predicated on protecting and restoring the salmon of the Columbia estuary, which she defined as the river from Bonneville Dam west — “the prime salmon-steelhead fishery in the lower 48 states,” Goldberg said.

The spills could be combined with devastating oil fires, in case of train derailments, according to Goldberg and Cornelison. In the Pacific Northwest a train derailment happens about every four days: there were 81 in the last half of 2011 (after the National Transportation Safety Board started requiring rail companies to keep records), 95 in 2012 and 120 in 2013. Cornelison displayed photos of catastrophic derailments in the past year, including the April 2013 tragedy in Quebec that claimed 47 lives, and the April 14 accident in Virginia.

“That one is relevant because it happened next to a river, just like us,” Cornelison said.

Pipeline Hazard Materials Safety Administration has started a rules-making process for oil transport, he said.

“The industry acknowledges this oil is as flammable as gasoline,” he said. Seventy percent of all tank cars are obsolete and cannot sustain a direct impact without busting and they also do not have safety valves that are adequate to handle the pressure, Cornelison said. Many rail cars are outdated and should not be used and new cars are not adequate for the “Bakken Fields” oil that would constitute much of the cargo through the Gorge.

Why the Bakken oil is so flammable is still not known for sure, but Cornelison said that a study by the NTSB suggests it could be that the shaking of the oil trains separates the liquid and creates a volatile gas en route.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge is asking people to notify them if they see oil trains, marked by a red triangle.

Vigilance is about as far as local citizens can go, according to Goldberg.

“There is very little we can do as local community to stop oil trains; the city of Hood River could not pass a resolution banning it outright,” she said. “But that is not to say there is not a lot we can’t do to make the terminals safer and stop the proposed terminals.

“There is huge room for public outcry, public engagement, public hearings,” Goldberg said. The region is fortunate that Washington state has processes including Energy Facility Site Evaluation law, which puts all facility improvements through a rigorous review process. She cited the opposition to the proposed Tesoro terminal development by the City of Vancouver, a project supported by the Port of Vancouver.

“We are winning the fight, in regards to the city coming out in opposition to the (Tesoro) terminal,” she said.

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