Another Voice: Leadership needed in dealing with threats from oil trains in the Gorge

The Mosier train derailment on June 3 was a terrible accident. But from the accident, we have learned many valuable things. As the members of the Oregon House who represent the Gorge region in Salem, it was especially instructive for us to be able to witness first-hand how legislation passed in the 2015 session impacted the reaction to events that occurred that weekend.

The issue of oil-by-rail was a topic of much discussion during the 2015 session. Lawmakers were rightfully concerned about the increasing volume of potentially hazardous cargo that is being moved throughout the state on our rails, roads, and waterways. Federal laws governing interstate commerce and the regulations that manage railroad safety are very strong and are not able to be amended at the state level. So we chose to focus our attention on doing what we could to improve Oregon’s ability to be prepared for any incidents that might occur in the event of a train accident.

Our efforts to improve public safety in this area are found in HB 3225 which passed out of the legislature in 2015 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Response, readiness and resources were the key outcomes of this legislation.

HB 3225 provided the State Fire Marshall (OSFM) with the ability to develop plans for a coordinated response after oil or hazardous material spills. OSFM can now engage with local first responders and ensure they have the needed resources for an incident and coordinate the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other local, state and federal engagement as needed.

HB 3225 also improved readiness. It called for regular training exercises to be conducted locally throughout the state and coordinated by the Fire Marshall’s office. One of these “table top” exercises had been conducted in The Dalles just weeks before the June 3 incident and was credited for contributing to the rapid and effective response to the fire and for the public safety measures that were used.

HB 3225 leveraged valuable resources from our regional railroads. Scholarships paid for by the railroads were made available for first responders to travel to the national training facility to improve their skills and emergency readiness. Haz-Mat trailers with emergency equipment are now strategically located throughout the state and the Gorge area to make important materials available as soon as possible. When the the Mosier incident occurred, many first responders said that thanks to the bill, they had the training to know exactly how to react and had the equipment to do so.

Obviously, it is our hope that this type of accident never happens again in the Gorge. But the larger issues surrounding the transport of hazardous materials by rail and the safety standards for rail cars and tracks are conversations that need to happen at the federal level and not in Salem.

Last weekend we attended Sen. Wyden’s town hall in Mosier. In it he shared some of his thoughts about what could be done to improve rail safety. This weekend Sen. Merkley will be in the area to share his thoughts on the issue. We join elected officials in the Gorge to call upon our congressional delegation to work collaboratively to forge bipartisan actions that can truly make a difference and lessen the likelihood that an incident will ever happen again.

It seems fitting that on the 100th anniversary of the Columbia River Highway that Oregon’s federal delegation will provide the leadership that is needed to ensure that this national treasure that we all call home will be protected for the next 100 years.

Rep. Mark Johnson of Hood River serves House Dist. 52. Rep. John Huffman of The Dalles serves House Dist. 59.

Sen. Merkley holds town hall meetings June 18 at Mosier Community School at 4 p.m. and Hood River Fire and EMS at 6:30 p.m.

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