With trains hauling millions of gallons of volatile crude oil on Oregon's aging rail freight network, Gov. John Kitzhaber was right last week to order a comprehensive assessment of state rail safety and oil spill responsiveness. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden was also on the right track when he called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to do more to protect the public from the well-documented hazards of oil shipments by rail.
Those hazards have been much on peoples' minds since three high-profile explosions last year — including one that occurred after an unattended train of tank cars rolled down a grade and derailed, killing 47 people and burning down much of the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
Even before that disaster, U.S. transportation officials had warned that companies shipping oil by rail were failing to follow basic precautions, such as selecting properly equipped and tested tank cars and gauging the temperature at which the oil being shipped will turn into a gas and burn or explode.
Last month, the Department of Transportation announced that the nation's major railroads had agreed to eight voluntary measures. They included reducing speed limits for oil trains in cities, increasing the number of track inspections, adding more brakes on trains and improving the training of emergency medical workers who respond to rail disasters.
A new federal emergency order requires North Dakota oil producers to test and properly classify crude oil before sending it on trains to Oregon and other states. Shippers already were supposed to classify oil shipments based on volatility, but federal investigators found that crude oil shipments from North Dakota's oil fields had routinely been misclassified. That increased the risk that the oil could end up being shipped in less protective rail tank cars, and that emergency personnel might not have the information they need to properly respond to spills.
While Wyden praised the federal order, he emphasized that more work needs to be done to satisfactorily secure the safety of oil trains. Those steps should include stricter requirements for the tank cars themselves, which are prone to puncture and burn in derailments.
Kitzhaber, meanwhile, believes that Oregon cannot afford to wait, and a spokesman emphasized the need for the state's emergency responders to have better information about what railroads are hauling through local communities so they can properly respond when accidents occur.
In 2013, trains carried more than 240 million gallons of crude oil through Portland and rural communities along Highway 30 en route to a terminal near Clatskanie. Much of that material was highly volatile, similar to the shipments involved in last year's high-profile explosions, including the one in Quebec.
After last year's tragedies, the hazards of oil shipments are front and center, and Kitzhaber and Wyden are well justified in paying closer attention to the urgent problem of oil train safety.