Preparation for potential incidents stemming from oil train traffic in Klickitat County was the hot topic of discussion at a meeting in White Salmon last week.
The panel discussion featured three speakers at the White Salmon Community Library, including Dave Mulligan, of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety; Ed Powell, emergency management coordinator for Klickitat County; and Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, community organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper.
A robust and curious audience was also in attendance to learn about predominately oil train traffic through the Gorge and what safety precautions could be taken in case of derailment.
Monday’s meeting fell on the same night as a Vancouver City Council meeting attended by almost 700 people that resulted in the adoption of a policy to fight a proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build at the Port of Vancouver what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the Northwest that could handle up to 380,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
Powell spent most of his allotted time going over steps he and businesses on Bingen Point have taken to develop an evacuation plan in the event of a derailment that could block the roads leading in and out of the area where so many businesses call home.
“All you folks are my friends, even the ones I haven’t met, so I got to thinking, ‘What if something tragic happens in our community?’ Since I was a little kid one of the problems I faced was how in the world are SDS employees going to get out of Bingen Point if something happens to the rail?” Powell said.
One option under the plan involves using a barge owned by SDS Lumber to transport employees away if access is blocked on Bingen Point.
While evacuation procedures have been examined, Powell made it clear that if a train carrying crude oil should derail and spill, Klickitat County emergency officials have had no training in cleaning it up, nor do they have the equipment to do so. Powell said he has been speaking with Washington State Rep. Norm Johnson (R-14) about ways Klickitat County could obtain funds to train firefighters in containing an oil spill.
“One of the things we don’t have here in our county or the Gorge, the only available hazardous response team comes from Portland, so that’s my problem. I can prepare how to get people away and we can work on a plan and practice and train, but you can’t train how to contain the material,” Powell said.
Zimmer-Stucky gave some insight on just how much oil-train traffic the Gorge could see. Data she provided via the U.S. Department of State’s final supplemental environmental impact statement for the Keystone XL Pipeline showed that if all currently proposed oil-by-rail projects in the Northwest were approved more than 858,800 barrels of oil would be transported through Washington and Oregon per day.
According to the data, that’s slightly more crude oil transport than the Keystone XL Pipeline could potentially carry.
Zimmer-Stucky also offered examples of the 10 oil trail derailments that have occurred nationwide between March 27, 2013, and May 9, 2014.
“There are a lot of people who are calling for a pause on crude oil-by-rail and are going back to the drawing board, having public hearings, and making sure that safety and emergency responders are queued up before these materials come through. We want them to be fully prepared,” Zimmer-Stucky said.
But not everyone in the crowd was so sure that trains carrying crude oil or coal are necessarily the only threat. Kevin Herman, of White Salmon, spoke up during the portion of the meeting dedicated to questions and comments asking what could contribute to a derailment.
“Everyone says, ‘Oh my gosh; this train crashed and it had oil on it,’ but no one ever talks about what caused it. There was a New York Subway train that crashed because the guy had fallen asleep at the wheel and it went out of control because when things are going fast they tend to crash,” Herman said. “I don’t think a train just decides to crash because it has crude oil on it or toys.”
The overwhelming consensus of those in attendance was that if crude oil trains are going to continue to travel through the Gorge, Klickitat and other counties need to prepare not only for evacuation and emergency response, but for cleanup, as well, but the funding to do so should be supplied at least in part by the companies shipping oil through the region.
“We do drive our cars and we do need oil because we’re dependent on it, but we’re talking about all of these very expensive emergencies that could be possibly fatal, that could be detrimental to our environment, all these issues, when this oil that’s coming through on these rail lines isn’t even going to be sold to us,” Connolly said. “Sure, it has to be refined in the U.S., but it’s going on the market, it’s not supplying us, so why are we feeling so obliged to jeopardize so much that we love here, our lives, our environment, our industry? Why do we have to come up with the money for the safety and emergency responses? I don’t understand this. Why are we having to forfeit so much and risk so much so that Tesoro and so many other companies can continue to make record profits every year?”