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Feds must address fatal flaw in crude oil rail cars

When a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in a small Quebec town in July, resulting in the deaths of 47 people and — at the time — an evacuation of the 2,000-population town of Lac-Mégantic, it was not difficult to imagine a similar story playing out in Columbia County.

Since that disaster, the Port of St. Helens has agreed with Global Partners LP, which transports light sweet crude oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota to Port Westward, in November to double the company’s rail traffic to a total of 34 trains per month. Also, there have since been three additional train derailments involving crude oil as cargo, the most recent on Tuesday when a Canadian National Railway train hauling Bakken crude derailed in New Brunswick. There were no injuries in the derailment.

In Mark Miller’s story following the Quebec disaster (“Quebec rail disaster: Could it happen here?” July 12), Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole is quoted, “With that kind of material coming through our towns, it should be a concern for all of us, from Scappoose to Clatskanie.”

Referring to Lac-Mégantic, Cole said, “If it can happen there, it can happen here.”

Mike Williams, a spokesman for Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming Inc., the owner of Portland and Western Railroad’s Astoria line that runs from Portland to the Port Westward industrial park, said at the time that the company had adopted new rules to ensure unattended trains — one of the root causes of the Lac-Mégantic disaster — are braked. Williams also cited additional safety measures that have been implemented.

In the article, Patrick Trapp, the executive director for the Port of St. Helens, agreed with Cole that “anything can happen anywhere.” At the time, Trapp voiced confidence in local emergency responders and in rail transportation in general.

But what we’re seeing in places like Quebec, Casselton, N.D., rural Alabama and New Brunswick is a chilling pattern emerging in which an increasingly prevalent commodity — crude oil extracted from the Bakken shale oilfields that extend from Canada to North Dakota — is the fuel for high-profile train derailments and subsequent explosions.

We can take some comfort that emergency management officials have begun preparations for the worst and that legislators, citing rail’s historical safety record, perceive little risk in the current scenario.

Likewise, Williams’ comments in this week’s issue (see “Oil train explosions raise concerns close to home,” A5) regarding the P&W line’s safety record and speed variances between trains on this line and those involved in the aforementioned disasters are worth considering.

But there is a common variable: the DOT-111 tank cars.

The cars have since been widely criticized as being flawed — one safety advocate out of Chicago characterized it as the Ford Pinto of tank cars, referencing the car that was recalled in the 1970s due to its propensity to explode after impact. These are the same cars that are moving through Columbia County on a nearly daily basis.

We would like to add our voice to those from agencies such as Association of American Railroads that are calling for the U.S. Department of Transportation to adopt new standards for tank cars carrying crude.

While Global and the presence of the rail line promise an increase in much-needed jobs for Columbia County, the companies that have adopted the DOT-111 tank car and the local agencies that have allowed their presence in Columbia County need to answer for the presence of those cars as the accepted vehicle for volatile crude through our towns. It is indeed a game-changer for livability along the tracks if the DOT-111 car is flawed and — as has also been speculated, though not confirmed — Bakken crude oil is more volatile than other types of crude.

Rail accidents do happen along the P&W line. As Columbia River Fire & Rescue Chief Jay Tappan explained in this week’s article, the 2011 derailment of cars hauling logs and the resulting fire after it crashed into a parked rail car containing ethanol near the intersection of Highway 30 and Cornelius Pass Road offered an opportunity to gauge local emergency agencies’ response to a rail disaster. But it also showed that we are not immune to such disasters.

And, with that knowledge, we are each responsible for having a conversation about how the increased presence of a highly volatile fluid being trafficked via tanker cars suspected to be fatally flawed has changed our outlook on day-to-day safety.