Oil Train Legislation: The Mosier Acts

Friends supports common-sense measures to protect the Columbia Gorge from oil trains

Oil Train Legislation: The Mosier Acts
The fiery aftermath of the oil train derailment at Mosier, OR, June 3, 2016. (photographer: Michael McKeag)

Transporting oil by rail is inherently unsafe. Until it is stopped we must hold railroads accountable by improving: oil spill response; funding for emergency preparedness; and assurances that railroads can pay for worst-case scenario derailments, oil spills, fires, and explosions.

Mosier Acts of 2017

In 2017, Friends, Columbia Riverkeeper, and Stand Up to Oil supported House Bill 2131 (sponsored by Rep. Smith Warner) and Senate Bill 7 (sponsored by Sen. Courtney). These bills as originally drafted required oil spill contingency plans, levied fees on the railroads to fund oil spill emergency responses, and required railroads to carry adequate insurance to cover worst-case scenario oil spills.

In their original forms, HB 2131 and SB 7 contained significant, common-sense steps to address oil terminals and oil train safety in Oregon. Unfortunately, the House bill (upon which the Senate bill was contingent) died in committee in July 2017 after it had been amended to prohibit public involvement and disclosure of oil spill plans, eliminate railroad fees for emergency response planning, remove standards for oil spill plans, and make those plans unenforceable. While the amended bill asked the railroads to show that they can pay the costs of a major derailment, these financial responsibility statements would have been hidden from the public and exempt from public records requests or court subpoena. Without any recourse to review response plans before an emergency occurs, the public would not find out if plans are inadequate until it’s too late.

“What started out as a good bill was amended to become a secrecy and ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ bill for the railroads hauling dangerous Bakken oil through Oregon,” said Michael Lang, Conservation Director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

“Oil by rail will never be safe, but we look forward to working with the Legislature in the future to pass oil train legislation that better protects the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Oregon communities from oil trains.”

Why Oil Train Legislation Is Needed

Unsafe Rail Cars: Since 2012, explosive Bakken crude oil is being transported by rail at high speeds through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the Deschutes River Canyon, and many communities throughout Oregon. The oil is transported through Oregon to refineries in California and Washington with no direct benefit to Oregon’s economy. Explosive Bakken oil is transported in unsafe rail cars that puncture at speeds as low as 14 mph, leading to oil fires and explosions. New federal safety standards for rail cars only slightly improve impact resistance. Unit trains of oil carry up to 120 oil tank cars containing over 3 million gallons of volatile Bakken Crude oil or tar sands oil. These pipelines on rails endanger communities and waterways along major rail routes through Oregon.
A unit oil train travels on BNSF rail line parallel to WA State Route 14. (photographer: Randa Cleaves)
Derailments and Explosions: In the past three years, several oil train derailments, explosions and fires in North America have resulted in 47 deaths, the evacuation of thousands of people, millions of gallons of oil spilled into waterways and billions of dollars of property damage and environmental destruction. Our fears were realized last year when an oil train derailed in the small Gorge town of Mosier, catching fire and spilling 42,000 gallons of oil. Mosier residents were spared only because it was a rare windless day, thus preventing an unstoppable fire that would have incinerated the town. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) determined that the derailment was caused by Union Pacific Railroad’s negligence. According to FRA statistics, Union Pacific has more derailments and accidents caused by equipment failures compared to the industry average. We continue our work to reduce the threats of oil-by-rail in the hope of preventing any future such disasters.


New Oil Terminals Threaten the Gorge: Several oil terminal proposals are active in the Northwest, including what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the U.S. – Tesoro’s Vancouver Energy terminal. If approved, this would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the U.S, transporting 15 million gallons of oil per day through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. This terminal would need several permits to operate, including approval by the governor. The comment period and public hearing on an air pollution discharge permit is expected this spring and a final decision from the governor’s office on the terminal is anticipated this spring.

Crude oil export ban lifted in 2015: For 35 years, the U.S. ensured energy independence by prohibiting export of U.S. crude oil. In 2015, Congress lifted the U.S. crude oil export ban, thus creating the likelihood of new export terminals on the West Coast. As soon as the price of oil rebounds, residents of the Northwest can expect to see proposals for oil terminals.

Is Oregon ready?: Oregon has the weakest laws on the west coast related to oil trains and oil terminals. In the Mosier derailment, oil spill and fire, Oregon had to rely heavily on the Washington Department of Ecology for assistance. Both California and Washington have passed laws similar to HB 2131 and SB 7. These laws have not been preempted by federal railroad laws. California and Washington have comprehensive environmental policy acts. Oregon does not. Regarding oil terminals, Oregon law contains a loophole in ORS 780.040(1) that would allow oil terminals on state lands without the need for a state land lease. This combination of a very weak oil train law, lack of an environmental policy act and exemptions for terminals make Oregon a soft target for oil-by-rail transport and terminals.

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