POLITICS: PennAve

First responders gear up as more trains carrying crude oil travel through their communities

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Transportation,Oregon,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Oil,Bakken Shale,DOT,Railroads,Shipping

PORTLAND, Ore. -- One train each month used to travel through Scappoose, a town 20 miles northwest of here, a few years ago. In March, 14 trains did so, largely owing to a boom in U.S. oil production. Soon it will be 24 and, not long after that, possibly the mid-30s.

For those keeping score, that's more than a 3,000 percent increase.

In a region that's known more for the natural resources that grow above its soil than under it, that kind of number-counting is presenting challenges while also illuminating the scope of the changing U.S. energy landscape.

"We've had more meetings with the railroad in the last year than in the 40 years of my career," Scappoose Fire Chief Mike Greisen told the Washington Examiner.

Oregonians, just like others, are alarmed by a rash of derailments and explosions involving crude oil tankers that are traveling from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana. That crude, which is unlocked through the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, drilling technique that has become synonymous with the U.S. oil and gas boom, is under federal evaluation to determine whether it's unusually flammable.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized the Transportation Department for the pace of a rulemaking that would upgrade safety standards for older-model DOT-111 cars, which aren't scheduled for completion until 2015. They have cited concerns that an incident similar to the July derailment and explosion of a tanker car carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, could occur in the U.S.

As the rulemaking process churns on, first responders, states and railroad companies aren't waiting.

Genesee & Wyoming, which owns the tracks that run through Scappoose, is offering training sessions to first responders, as are other railroad-track owners across the country, said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman with the American Association of Railroads.

For the first time, the Oregon State Fire Marshal opened an annual safety course that is usually reserved for 13 teams of strategically placed first responders to other communities and agencies. The Oregon Department of Transportation and Portland and Western Railroad offered grants so first responders could participate.

Greisen, who was taking that training course this week, noted that the topics differ each year and are chosen a year ahead of time. It's key for Greisen's department because practice runs are costly — each five-gallon bucket of specialized fire-suppressing foam costs $100 and is exhausted in less than a minute.

"We're not looking anywhere else except in our area because we know the government can promise us this and that, but who knows what is going to happen?" Greisen said.

Industry insiders say the series of explosive and potentially deadly accidents has hastened progress at DOT. They pointed to an advisory earlier this month that urged producers transporting Bakken crude against using DOT-111 cars and another requiring shippers and energy companies to identify Bakken crude routes and to notify first responders.

Joe Delcambre, a DOT spokesman, said that 99.9 percent of shipments of hazardous material arrived at their destinations without incident.

"Safety is our first priority and we have undertaken more than a dozen distinct actions to enhance the safe transport of crude oil in the last nine months alone," he wrote in an email.

In the case of Scappoose, the crude is heading to a refinery in Cherry Point, Wash., near the Canadian border. Nationally, crude-by-rail shipments have soared by 4,111 percent between 2008 and 2013, from 9,500 carloads to about 400,000, according to the American Association of Railroads.

First responders are notified of the top 100 hazardous materials that travel through their communities, but not when — a post-Sept. 11, 2001, national security policy. Not that real-time notification would matter anyway, Greisen said. In the 1980s and 1990s, trains had already blown through Scappoose by the time he got the call from chemicals shippers.

But crude oil trains have invited a more visceral community response than the chlorine tankers — which were also highly flammable — that used to travel more frequently through Scappoose.

"They look at it as oil like the BP oil spill in the Gulf," Greisen said, referring to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and sent about 4 million barrels of oil into the the Gulf of Mexico.

Arthur said her organization is pushing for safety regulations for crude railcars that go beyond industry improvements agreed to in 2011.

The American Petroleum Industry, the top oil and gas trade organization, hasn't gone that far.

Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the group, praised the industry standards, while noting that the American Petroleum Industry has pushed the Transportation Department to finish its standards to provide more certainty for oil and gas companies.

Straessle also said that what the American Association of Railroads wants would come at a cost to oil producers, which own the cars, and added that the railroad industry hasn't shown how it arrived at its calculations.

"If you make design changes to a tank car that make it heavier there are limits to what you can do — it would require more cars because would need to carry less crude," he said. "We're trying to understand the modeling and the calculations that AAR has used. We've asked them to share that, but so far we haven't seen that."

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