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Increase in number of oil trains cause safety concerns
When the Oregon state inspector got close enough to the hulking black rail car with the red placard warning about flammable liquids inside, he heard hissing.
It was August. TILX 350519, a tank car that holds 30,000 gallons of crude oil, was waiting to be unloaded at an industrial park on the Columbia River near Clatskanie. The car had traveled 1,200 miles from Dore, North Dakota, a tiny town at the heart of a boom feeding a rapidly growing amount of oil into the country’s rail system – a new phenomenon raising safety concerns nationwide.
The inspector pinpointed the problem. Potentially flammable gas was escaping from a valve. Another car had a leak, too. Though unlikely, the leaks could’ve led to major fires if they were ignited.
The inspector checked 80 oil tank cars that day and found dozens of issues. A valve that would keep oil from leaking out in a derailment was open. Another wasn’t plugged. Others were loose, easily turned by hand.
Rail safety experts say the cars weren't transported as securely as possible. The deficiencies weakened essential safety layers as the highly volatile oil passed near businesses, schools and hundreds of homes in Vancouver, Wash., Portland, Scappoose, St. Helens and Rainier.
They were only identified because the Oregon Department of Transportation targeted oil trains last year. But the concentrated blitz faced a harsh reality. While ODOT has 4,500 employees, it has only one who specializes in inspecting the hundreds of trains carrying hazardous materials through Oregon.
Until recently, it had none.
While accident rates and derailments have steadily declined for decades, oil trains have a dubious track record. Trains in Oregon carry the same type of flammable North Dakota oil involved in three high-profile explosions last year, including one that killed 47 people and leveled part of a Canadian town.
Last year, 110 trains brought a total of 242 million gallons of that volatile crude to the industrial park outside Clatskanie.
The state inspector laid eyes on just eight.
Oil trains arrived in Oregon in late 2012, sharply increasing the volume of hazardous materials moving on the state’s railroads. More could be coming.
ODOT hasn’t kept up. The state agency tasked with keeping the public safe from risks on the rails hasn’t expanded its inspection staff since shortly after it inherited the program in 1996. It has six train inspectors, who each specialize in a discipline such as track conditions, locomotives and equipment or hazardous materials shipments.
“We’ve chosen to have as many inspectors as we have and added over time to make sure we have inspectors looking at everything that’s out there,” said John Johnson, ODOT’s rail safety manager.
But they don’t see everything. In Oregon – and across the country – inspectors are spread microscopically thin. They observe less than 1 percent of all rail activities.
Oversight starts with the Federal Railroad Administration. But it has so few inspectors that 30 states, includingOregon, have their own programs. Combined, the state and feds have 12 inspectors for Oregon’s 2,400 miles of track, 2,000 rail employees and more than 50 million tons of freight.
A close look identified serious problems with how Oregon is addressing oil train safety. Oil trains have vastly increased the amount of dangerous material moving through Scappoose, St. Helens and Rainier, where trains historically carried lumber and a limited number of hazardous chemicals.
State rail officials don’t even acknowledge being concerned about the increased risk.
A month-long review by The Oregonian found:
• Inspecting cars carrying hazardous materials hasn’t always been a priority for the Oregon Department of Transportation, the state’s rail safety overseer. In budget documents, ODOT has called inspections vital to preventing derailments and chemical spills that could kill thousands. But when ODOT’s lone hazardous materials train inspector retired in 2009, the agency didn’t fill his job for more than two years. The state didn’t inspect a single rail car carrying dangerous chemicals in 2010 or 2011.
• ODOT officials don’t know, or won’t say, how much oil and other dangerous material travels on the state’s railroads. ODOT officials claimed they don’t know how much oil moves through Oregon. If true, that would make it impossible to judge whether more inspectors were needed. But a retired ODOT inspector said railroads do report those volumes to the agency. Pressed, ODOT officials vacillated about the reason it couldn’t be released, saying it’s a security risk, proprietary, difficult to compile and incomplete. The result? Public officials and residents around the state are left in the dark.
• Oregon is unique on the West Coast in letting its road builders oversee rail safety. In California and Washington, rail inspectors work for regulatory commissions, which freely admit that oil trains are worrisome. Top rail officials at ODOT, an agency whose primary function is building roads, say they aren’t worried.
• ODOT’s rail division, which employs several former railroad workers, is unusually accommodating with railroads. After The Oregonian requested routine documents showing a local railroad’s maintenance spending on a key line carrying oil trains, ODOT notified the company that it had released the information. The company, whose former general manager works in ODOT’s rail division, protested and has sought to keep those reports from ever again being released to the public.
Former rail safety employees say oil trains have absolutely increased risks in Oregon. It’s not a matter of if an accident will occur, a former inspector said, but when.
“The more cars you move, the more chance of things going wrong,” said Michael Eyer, the retired ODOT hazardous materials inspector whose job went unfilled for two years. “This is a huge increase in movements.”
As oil trains multiply, Eyer said state and federal regulators need to add more hazmat inspectors. The state needs to improve retention, he said, because it takes years to properly train inspectors. Rail inspectors start inOregon making $51,780 a year, or $17,000 less than the federal government pays for doing the same job.
The railroad industry, National Transportation Safety Board and federal regulators have all said safety improvements are needed to address oil train risks. Legislatures across the country have begun to tackle the public safety and environmental threats.
In interviews with The Oregonian, ODOT officials emphasized they aren’t concerned about oil trains, saying they don’t want to be alarmist, while noting that their inspection program isn’t required.
“Concern is too strong a word,” said Hal Gard, ODOT’s rail and public transit administrator, who oversees the department’s rail safety office. “I’m not worried about oil trains in the state of Oregon. We do a good job of oversight. There is an increase, we’re aware of that, we’re doing the best we can.
“Am I specifically concerned about it? I’m not.”
It used to be that when Oregon’s rail inspectors went into the field, they drove in unmarked white cars. That was in the early 1990s. Rail inspectors worked for the Oregon Public Utility Commission, a state agency that oversees utility rates and pipeline safety.
Inspectors could watch rail yards from those anonymous sedans without announcing themselves. They could see whether workers were taking shortcuts. Whether they properly inspected cars after chemicals were unloaded. Whether they walked under rail cars, a major safety risk. Whether they put required buffer cars between locomotives and cars carrying hazardous chemicals.
All that became impossible when the state Legislature and Gov. John Kitzhaber moved trucking oversight from the Public Utility Commission to the Oregon Department of Transportation in 1996. The rail safety program went with it.
Inspectors traded unmarked sedans for flamboyant yellow ODOT trucks – “yellow bumblebees,” as they’re called. When those trucks came within sight, rail crews knew a state inspector was coming.
“When you’re in a fluorescent yellow vehicle, as soon as you’re around, you’re not as able to effectively do your job,” said Eyer, the former inspector.
At the Public Utility Commission, rail oversight was a high-profile priority, former employees say. The commission spent years in court successfully fighting railroads, which had challenged Oregon’s right to assess a fee that made the industry – not taxpayers – pay for state inspectors.
But the culture changed when ODOT took over rail safety, former employees say. ODOT viewed the people and businesses it interacted with as cooperative stakeholders, they say, not entities needing a watchdog.
“The rail safety regulatory program was not a high priority for the department,” said Claudia Howells, a retired administrator of ODOT’s rail division who experienced the transition. “The attention of ODOT as a whole was focused very heavily on highway infrastructure improvement.”
ODOT goes “to a great effort to make their stakeholders happy – and that includes railroads,” Howells said.
Gard, the current ODOT rail administrator, said he’s found that railroad companies are more cooperative when working collaboratively. More gets done that way, he said.
“Safety is something we take incredibly seriously,” he said, noting that he would “love to double or triple” the rail safety program’s size. But ODOT is downsizing, he said.
“We’re taking a role we don’t have to,” Gard said. “We’re putting energy where we can.”
If ODOT advocated for more inspectors to address the increase in oil trains, Howells said it would face opposition from railroads, which are paying $873,000 this year for the state inspection program.
ODOT hasn’t made that request.
The agency’s ambivalence about oil stands out. Oregon’s rail safety counterparts in other states readily acknowledge their worries about crude oil trains.
“The feds are spread too thin,” said Paul King, deputy director of the California Public Utilities Commission’s rail safety office. “Everyone is concerned and looking at what they can do and whether we’re doing enough.”
“Any time you’re increasing the amount of hazardous materials by any mode of transportation, inherently that causes a bit of apprehension and concern,” said Kathy Hunter, rail safety manager at the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.
ODOT is planning one change. State law requires railroads to notify emergency responders in advance about hazardous materials shipments through their communities. That’s not currently happening, Gard said, because state law “is woefully out of date.” New requirements will be drafted in coming months.
During his long career inspecting rail cars carrying hazardous materials in Oregon, Eyer came to believe that railroads wanted to do the right thing, with only rare exceptions.
“It was always: ‘What can we do to do this safely?’ ” he said.
But Eyer said inspectors’ jobs have today become less focused on depth – longer looks to find serious defects – and more on quickly producing a big number that looks good.
“If you’re doing quantity, you don’t even have time to do triage,” he said. “You have to get out your numbers. The bottom line should be that we don’t focus on numbers, but that we go home safely to our homes and environment at night.
“Sometimes carriers and shippers and regulators lose track of that.”