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Oil train roulette in the Columbia Gorge

It was unsettling to learn that replacing puncture-prone oil tank cars used to haul explosive crude on the nation's rail lines could take 15 years under current regulations. The refusal of federal safety officials to investigate last month's fiery derailment in the Columbia Gorge is more alarming, coupled with the finding that regular track inspections failed to spot the faulty bolts that caused the crash.

What's most disturbing about the June 3 derailment and resulting oil spill and fire in Mosier is that it happened despite track inspections, despite the railroad's use of the safest tank cars available and despite the industry's insistence that shipping by rail is safe.

The railroad industry likes to cite a statistic saying more than 99 percent of hazardous material shipments reach their destination safely. That's true. The problem is the less than 1 percent that don't.

Federal statistics show derailments have been declining for years. But they still happen, and two dozen of them in recent years happened to crude oil shipments.

American railroads ship 2 million carloads of hazardous materials every year. If only a few of those jump the tracks, it's statistically insignificant.

Tell that to the residents of Mosier, who were forced to evacuate their homes, boil their water and contemplate how much worse it could have been if a strong wind were blowing, as is often the case in the gorge.

It could have been worse if the tank cars had not been the steel-jacketed type considered the safest for hauling crude — although four of them still caught fire and 42,000 gallons of oil was spilled. And nationwide, those state-of-the-art cars make up only 20 percent of those used to haul crude in the first quarter of this year. And the National Transportation Safety Board says under current regulations it could be 15 years before all those older, less safe cars are phased out.

That ought to suggest that those "current regulations" need upgrading. But don't worry: The industry says there's no rush.

A spokesman for rail tank car manufacturers and owners says demand for rail cars is down, because crude oil prices are down.

"The need to modify or install new cars isn't as urgent as when the rule was issued," he told The Associated Press.

Somehow, that's not reassuring.

Neither is the letter from the NTSB to Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, explaining that the agency didn't investigate the Mosier derailment because it has limited staff, because there were no fatalities and because the incident "did not pose any new significant safety issues."

Just the old ones.

Last week, Wyden and Merkley introduced a bill to require a federal investigation of every railroad accident and clarify federal officials' power to declare moratoriums on hazardous shipments. Oil shipments in the gorge have already resumed.

That bill should pass, but more needs to be done, and soon. An oil terminal now under consideration in Vancouver, Wash., if approved, would be the largest in the country, and would mean an additional 100 oil trains every week through the Columbia Gorge.

The vast majority of those would probably make it through safely. But all it takes is one.