The Board of Commissioners Thursday unanimously passed a resolution opposing a surge of trains carrying crude oil through Multnomah County and the Columbia Gorge, and called on Washington State regulators to require a more thorough risk assessment before it allows a major oil transport terminal project to move forward in the Port of Vancouver.
“This is really about our values around safety, our values around health, our values around the environment,” said Commissioner Jules Bailey, who sponsored the resolution. “Oil trains are not consistent with our values. And we’re seeing more and more of them coming through; A million gallons a week traveling through Multnomah County… we deserve a community where we don’t have to be at the mercy of freight that is passed through that didn't originate here and isn't going to serve us."
The move comes after a public safety assessment conducted by the county’s Office of Sustainability in conjunction with the county Office of Emergency Management and data provided by the county’s Health Department.
The total amount of crude traveling through Multnomah County by rail is not known. Railroads are only required to disclose Bakken oil shipments over 1 million gallons. Up to 12 trains with that volume pass through Multnomah County by train each week, the briefing reports.
About a quarter of the county’s population lives within a half mile of rail lines that carry the oil, exposing them to danger if a car derails and explodes. Firefighters say they’re not equipped to handle the kind of emergency that could cause.
Rob Didelius, president of the Oregon Rail Users League, opposed the resolution on behalf of railroads and natural gas companies that use the lines. Didelius, also an executive Frontier Rail Group that brings freight through the gorge, said rail is the safest and most fuel-efficient way to transport cargo across land; and it reduces highway congestion and wear.
“By and large railroads are safe and efficient,” said John Wasiutynski, director of the county’s Office of Sustainability. “We have lots of cargo moving through the county every day and it gets to its destination safety. But this commodity presents particular challenges.”
It’s more volatile than traditional oil, he said. And cars built to transport that oil simply aren’t safe. Federal regulations will require companies to transport oil in safer train cars. But those won’t all be on the rails until 2025. Meanwhile the number of oil trains passing through Columbia Gorge and Multnomah County will grow exponentially if Texas-based Tesoro and Utah-based Savage are allowed to build an oil transfer terminal in the Port of Vancouver.
Thursday’s vote drew support from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and interest groups including the Audubon Society and Sierra Club, The Friends of the Columbia Gorge and International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who raised concerns about the green houses gases that oil will emit, the potential for a dangerous explosion or a disastrous spill.
“Our region is defined by the Columbia River, and its protection should be in the forefront of our thoughts and actions,” said Orvie Danzuka, a representative from Warm Springs. “Tribes unfairly carry the risk of corporate greed at the cost of the environment, treaty rights, the Columbia River and our homes.”
Native citizens who fish on the Columbia already risk their lives to reach the river, crossing railroads already near capacity. This will make their traditional livelihood that much more treacherous. And if a train derails and spills, he said, “tribes will be left to live with the consequences.”
Board Chair Deborah Kafoury said that while the board doesn’t have the power to restrict the flow of rail traffic that passes through Multnomah County, they could demand that Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council conduct a more thorough environmental and hazard risk assessment of the project before they sign off.
“Shipping crude oil through neighborhoods, past thousands of people, poses a very real threat,” she said. And the draft environmental impact statement submitted by the Tesoro Savage project, falls short of addressing its potential impacts on Oregon.
“The risk to our community is too great,” she said. “That’s why I urge regulators to stop this project from moving forward and consider the full risk of shipping oil by trains through the most heavily populated area of the state.”