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How Oregon Passed a Historic Oil Train Spill Response Bill

How Oregon Passed a Historic Oil Train Spill Response Bill
Smoke rises above the fire caused by a Union Pacific derailment and oil spill near the town of Mosier, OR, 2016. (photographer: Michael McKeag)
By Michael Lang
Conservation Director

August 22, 2019
With just one day remaining before the Oregon Legislature adjourned for 2019, the Senate approved a bill (HB 2209) requiring oil spill response planning for high-hazard trains that carry millions of gallons of crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge. The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers and sent to Governor Brown to be signed into law on July 23. 

This is a significant achievement for Friends of the Columbia Gorge and our allies, and it wasn’t easy. Since 2012, trains carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil each have been traveling through the Columbia Gorge and across Oregon and Washington to terminals and refineries in the west. Nearly all of the oil reaching the region by rail goes through the Gorge.

Tragedy and repeated accidents demonstrated need for action

Communities and regulators were caught off guard by this sudden influx of crude-by-rail through the region. States along the rail lines did not have emergency response and oil spill cleanup plans in place for oil by rail.

Then tragedy struck in 2013 when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded into flames in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling the town. One after another, more heavy oil trains laden with explosive crude oil derailed and burst into flames across the country, endangering communities, spilling millions of gallons of oil into waterways and costing billions of dollars in cleanup costs. In June 2016 an oil train derailed near the town of Mosier, OR—spilling 42,000 gallons of oil and starting a fire that took over 14 hours to put out. 

Efforts by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress to reduce the risks of oil by rail were opposed by railroad companies. For example, new requirements for oil trains that passed in 2015 still permit new oil tank cars to puncture at speeds as low as 14 m.p.h. New requirements for safer braking systems, called electronic controlled pneumatic brakes, were repealed by the Trump Administration in 2017.

Sensing need for oil spill and emergency response planning on the state level, communities turned to the state legislatures for answers. For four years Friends and our environmental partners—along with emergency responders, community leaders, tribal governments and our allies in the states’ legislatures—backed legislation to require oil train spill response plans.

In 2015, the Washington legislature passed a bill requiring comprehensive spill response planning in the first year that it was introduced. While there was some opposition from Washington legislators friendly to the oil and railroad lobby, the bill passed with bipartisan support through the House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Why did previous attempts to pass legislation in Oregon fail?

In Oregon, bills were introduced in several legislative sessions, only to be gutted or stopped altogether by the railroads. After the derailment of an oil train in Mosier, Oregon, Friends and its allies in the legislature were confident that similar legislation passed in California in 2014 and Washington in 2015 would pass in Oregon. Instead, in 2017 a bill initially written to require comprehensive spill response planning was rewritten at the request of the railroad lobby to shield railroads from liability and public disclosure. In the waning days of the 2017 session, that bill was pulled from the floor of the House and sent back to committee to die due to opposition from the public and sharp criticism in the media.

So why is Oregon so different than our neighboring states regarding oil spill response and other environmental legislation? One reason might be that Oregon has extremely lax campaign finance laws. For example, according to the Oregonian newspaper, Oregon ranks first in the U.S. for the corporate campaign contributions per capita.  The railroads contribute significant amounts of cash into Oregon elections and some of the biggest opponents to oil spill response laws received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the railroads.

What changed leading into 2019 Legislative Session 

In spite of the playing field being tilted toward corporate interests, several factors changed in 2018 that improved the odds of a good bill passing in the 2019 session. At Friends request, the Oregon Conservation Network, an umbrella organization of environmental groups in Oregon, made passing an oil train spill response bill a priority for the 2019 session. Governor Kate Brown solidly supported passing an oil train spill response bill and had the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality introduce a bill at her request. A legislative work group was formed to try and build consensus around oil train spill response legislation. Legislators previously hesitant to exercise the state’s authority over the railroads became better educated on the line between state and federal jurisdiction. One of legislators who was a major recipient of railroad money and an opponent of oil train spill response planning left the legislature. Finally, no one wanted to see the legislative train wreck that occurred in 2017 repeated in the 2019 session.

Four bills were introduced in the 2019 session, two of them at Friends’ request. These bills required state approved spill response plans for up to the entire lading of an oil train, spill response trainings, proof of railroad financial responsibility for cleaning up a spill involving the entire oil train lading, fees assessed to the railroads, and advanced notification of oil train shipments headed to facilities in Oregon.

At the request of the governor, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality introduced a bill similar to Friends’ bills. Finally, a House Committee on Veterans and Emergency Preparedness introduced a bill (HB 2209), the product of a work group involving industry, state agencies, legislators, but with limited public involvement.

What the oil train response bill means

HB 2209 requires railroads transporting large amounts of crude oil through Oregon to development spill response plans and submit them to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for review and approval. The bill also requires a schedule for trainings on spill response and for railroads to provide to the DEQ proof of financial ability to pay for oil spill response and cleanup costs.
In other respects, HB 2209 was much weaker than legislation drafted by Friends. The bill capped liability and spill response at 15% of the train lading, didn’t require notification and initially made taxpayers foot the bill for spill response planning and trainings. Friends and its allies pushed to remove the cap on liability and spill response, require notification and also require fees assessed to the railroad to fund the program. The committee leadership resisted, but eventually bowed to pressure from the Speaker of the House and Senate leaders to amend the bill to require fees assessed to the railroads to pay for spill response planning and trainings.

The committee leadership refused to budge on notification or raise the cap on spill response and liability. Instead they defined a “worst case spill” as only 15% of the oil carried by the train. In comparison, the oil train derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec spilled over 1 million gallons of crude oil, which was about 33% of the train’s lading. This cap on spill response plans and liability could leave local government on the hook hundreds of millions of dollars in clean-up costs.

Nevertheless, if properly implemented, HB 2209 will be a substantial improvement on oil spill response in Oregon and better prepare the state to respond to the next derailment and spill. Oil trains will never be safe, but thanks to the legislators who supported HB 2209, the Columbia Gorge and communities across Oregon will be better protected from oil train derailments and spills.

Ensuring the legislation works as intended

The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission must now draft rules to implement the legislation and Friends will monitor the rule-making process.  While HB 2209 is a significant step forward, Oregon needs requirements for 24-hour notification of oil trains, periodic reporting on oil train traffic, and a true worst case scenario planning and financial responsibility by the railroads. Friends will continue to work to address the threat of oil trains in the Columbia River Gorge and through our communities.

With terminals like Zenith in Portland and Global Partners near Clatskanie expanding to transport crude oil, it is critical for HB 2209 to be promptly implemented and for the legislature to address the need for notification and true, worst-case spill costs in the next session of the legislature.

What community leaders are saying about the passage of HB 2209

The movement to introduce and pass an oil train spill response bill was made up of numerous groups and communities working together to effect change for Oregon communities. Here's some of what these leaders had to say about HB 2209's passage.

"When elected leaders do the right thing, to step up for their communities, to disregard the lobbying influences of the big, corporate, oil-by-rail industry, we hold our hands up to those leaders who voted yes on HB 2209," said Cathy Sampson-Kruse, Waluulapum Tribal Elder with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "The oil train spill response legislation is a big step in the right direction. Our children thank you and our big river, Nchi’ Wana thanks you."

"This is great news about HB 2209 for oil train safety," said Paul Blackburn, mayor of Hood River. "These rolling pipelines represent an existential threat to our little city and this bill includes several important protections."

Arlene Burns, the mayor of Mosier said, "HB 2209 is a huge step in the right direction to address implicit dangers of transportation of crude oil by rail through the heart of the Columbia Gorge and beyond. Especially with winds fueled wildfires and the Cascadia event as looming threats, it is high time to align our State's policies. Our community greatly appreciates all the bi-partisan efforts!"
"We realize that the Mosier oil train derailment was a predictable catastrophe," stated Dr. Patrick O'Herron, president of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Mosier and Oregon were lucky that day. Unfortunately, as oil continues to travel by rail, we can count on the fact that there will be more accidents and perhaps far worse events similar to the 2013 Lac Megantic oil train derailment that killed 47 people, displaced 2000 people from their homes, and destroyed much of the core downtown. We're very pleased that HB 2209 has passed and look forward to working with legislators to expand these protections in the future."
State Rep. Anna Williams of District 52 said, "Our communities must be protected from environmental disasters like the Mosier derailment. This is a long overdue reform, and I’m happy to have helped put this important policy in place for the safety of Oregonians."
"The Trump administration repealed the requirement for safer braking systems (ECP) and the requirement that each train have at least two employees on board for safety reasons, ensuring that oil trains will remain a threat to health and safety, and increasing the urgency for oil train emergency response measures," said Rhett Lawrence, conservation director for the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "That makes new legislation like HB 2209 vital for Oregon."