Oregon Legislature Passes Historic Oil Train Spill Response Bill

Oregon Legislature Passes Historic Oil Train Spill Response Bill
A Union Pacific unit oil train passes through the Columbia Gorge near Interstate 84 and Starvation Creek State Park. (photographer: Stan Hall)
June 29, 2019
Categorie(s): Latest News

Three years after the Mosier derailment and spill, the Oregon Legislature steps up.

Contacts:  
Burt Edwards, communications director | 971.634.0595 (office) | 703.861.8237 (cell) | burt@gorgefriends.org (email) 
Ryan Rittenhouse, conservation organizer | 971.634.2034 (office) | 440.796.9695 (cell) | ryan@gorgefriends.org (email) 

PORTLAND, OR – Today the Oregon Legislature approved a bill (HB 2209) with bipartisan support to better prepare Oregon to respond to oil spills from high-hazard trains that carry millions of gallons of crude oil through the state. The bill passed 56 to 3 in the House on June 17 and was approved 26 to 1 (with one absent, one excused) in the Oregon Senate today. The governor has five days to take action after the enrolled bill is sent to the governor's office. 

HB 2209 will require 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 triennial schedule for trainings on spill response, fees assessed to the railroads to pay for spill response and trainings, and for railroads to provide to the DEQ proof of financial ability to pay for oil spill response and cleanup costs. 

"Oil trains will never be safe, but thanks to legislators who supported HB 2209, the Columbia Gorge and communities across Oregon will be better protected from oil train derailments and spills," said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. 

Since 2012, trains carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil each have been traveling through the Columbia Gorge and across Oregon to terminals and refineries in the Northwest and California. Nearly all of the oil reaching the region by rail goes through the Gorge. 

"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." 

In 2015, both Washington and California passed laws to better prepare for derailments and spills. At the same time, Oregon's legislature struggled to pass meaningful spill response legislation due to opposition from the major railroads. As a result, Oregon has the weakest laws on the west coast for oil trains and terminals. 

"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." 

Oil transported in single-shell tank cars are prone to rupturing at very low speeds. Adding to the danger posed by oil trains is the high volatility of the crude oil being transported. Since 2013, numerous derailments in North America have resulted in explosions and fires killing people, causing thousands to be evacuated, spilling millions of gallons of oil, and costing billions 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. 

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 bipartisan 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 2,000 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." 

In the 2019 session, four bills were introduced to address oil train spill response, including a bill at the request of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and two bills at Friends of the Columbia Gorge's request, with the support of the member organizations of the Stand Up To Oil Coalition. HB 2209 was the product of a bipartisan work group and contains most of the requirements that were in the Governor's bill and Friends' bills. 

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." 

While HB 2209 is a significant step forward for Oregon, there is still more work to be done regarding oil train response. The bill lacks 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. Unlike Washington law and bills introduced at Friends' request, HB 2209 defines worst case spill as up to 15% of the train’s capacity or 450,000 gallons of crude oil. 

"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." 

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. 

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About Friends of the Columbia Gorge 

Friends of the Columbia Gorge is a nonprofit organization with over 6,000 members dedicated to protecting and enhancing the scenic, natural, cultural, and recreational resources of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Friends maintains offices in Portland, OR as well as in two locations based in the Gorge -- Hood River, OR and Washougal, WA.  

About Stand Up to Oil 

Stand Up to Oil is a growing coalition of groups opposed to new oil terminals and an increase in oil transport through the Northwest, while working to improve safety measures for oil currently traveling through the region. Read more: standuptooil.org