It is a fact as undeniable as it is daunting - a big part of La Grande is in a potential oil train "blast zone."

Trains loaded with volatile crude oil from the Midwest regularly pass through the heart of La Grande while en route to ports. A derailment or accident involving one of these trains could trigger a fire and explosions that would endanger everyone within a mile radius of the accident, also known as the blast zone, according to Norm Cimon a board member with Oregon Rural Action.

"If you see where an oil train has exploded, you can see the effects a mile away," the La Grande resident said.

Cimon was among the presenters at an "Oil Transport Safety in La Grande" program put on Monday by Oregon Rural Action. The aim of the program is to heighten awareness of the danger oil trains pose to the community and spur people to work together to address the issue.

The danger posed by the volatile crude oil being shipped cannot be overstated, Cimon said. He noted that in 2013 a crude oil train that derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, ignited a fire that killed 47 people. The United States has not had an oil train disaster of this magnitude, but it has had close to a dozen oil train derailments in the past five years, many of which caused major fires. One in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2012 forced everyone within a mile of the accident to be evacuated. This year there have been oil train derailments in Gogama, Ontario; Heimdal, North Dakota; and Galena, Illinois.

The danger confronting La Grande and many other communities oil trains run through has grown dramatically in the past five years because of an increase in the amount of crude oil shipped by rail refineries. This oil is

being shipped via train because of a lack of availabilityof pipelines, according to a story in the Jan. 25, 2014, edition of the New York Times.

Union Pacific currently moves 400 to 500 carloads of crude oil monthly through Oregon, according to Francisco Castillo of Roseville, California, who is director of corporate relations and media for Union Pacific Railroad. Statistics on how many oil train cars run through La Grande are not available.

A high percentage of the crude oil transported by Union Pacific is done so in DOT 111 railcars. These are old cars that puncture easily when there is a derailment, Cimon said. He added that they also have weak spouts.

"If they snap off, any spark can ignite a fire," Cimon said.

Castillo said in a phone interview on Tuesday that steps are being taken to improve the quality of the railcars used to transport crude oil. He noted that the U.S. Department of Transportation has put new rules in place, effective Oct. 1, requiring that the use of all DOT 111s for hazardous waste transport be phased out within three years if the cars are not retrofitted to meet higher safety standards.

The new rules also apply to the uninsulated CPC 1232 railcars also used to transport crude oil. These cars must be phased out in five years or retrofitted with proper insulation.

Castillo said the companies shipping the crude oil will be responsible for making the upgrades or replacing the cars. He explained that Union Pacific uses oil cars provided by shippers.

For the complete story, please see Wednesday's edition of The Observer.