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Gorge panel seeks halt to oil trains

The gorge commission has asked for a moratorium on all new coal and oil transports through the gorge until a risk analysis is done and measures are in place to avoid derailments and provide mitigation should they occur.

The long-awaited action from the commission came after another large crowd, the third in as many months, spoke against coal and oil transports at the commission’s July 8 meeting in Troutdale.

The resolution strongly urges the Washington and Oregon governors to use the powers of each state and the “mandatory protection standards” within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act to impose the moratorium.

Several commenters said they hoped the language in the scenic area act could be used to stop a potential significant increase in oil trains through the gorge, due to a proposed oil transfer terminal in Vancouver that would handle 360,000 barrels of oil a day.

The resolution says the fossil fuel transports pose “unacceptable risks” to the gorge environment and to public health and safety.

Commissioner Lorrie DeKay said she recognized the moratorium request wasn’t likely to be successful, but she felt there was “still value” in requesting it.

Some 18 loaded oil trains a week — each with 100 cars — are going on the Washington side of the gorge. (Oregon did not release the numbers for its side of the river.) They’re carrying a type of crude oil called Bakken, which is unusually explosive — perhaps due fracking, the method used to extract it.

In the last year — as more oil is being transported by rail because of overburdened pipelines — five oil trains carrying Bakken have derailed and exploded, including a derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people.

The proposed Tesoro-Savage oil facility in Vancouver would also handle the Bakken crude oil, loading it onto barges to head for refineries in California.

Oil is traditionally delivered via pipeline, but the growth in US and Canadian oil production has exceeded pipeline capacity and oil transport by rail has increased from just 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013.

The Vancouver facility is just one of seven proposed oil terminals in Washington. Three are already operational.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, told the commission, “I do believe you have a higher level of authority” to act against the proposed Vancouver terminal.

The resolution calls the scenic area a “national treasure” with “uniquely vulnerable landscape” which also happens to contain the only sea-level rail route through the Cascades.

It notes the commission is committed to protecting the most sensitive areas of the scenic area from the cumulative effects of human use and development.

Commission Chair Jim Middaugh told the Chronicle that the scenic area act includes “opportunities” to potentially impact the oil transports. The commission asked for a meeting with both governor’s offices before Sept. 30 to explore those opportunities.

“We are charged with ensuring no adverse impacts to natural resources. That’s really what we’re trying to achieve,” Middaugh said.

At the meeting, former Gorge Commissioner Jane Jacobsen said, “I’m really thankful we have a gorge commission. I urge you to get on it, be as strong as you can.”

She said it would only take one accident to ruin the ecosystem. In places, trains go 70 miles per hour just feet from the river.

She said it was cheaper for oil companies to rail the oil to Vancouver, then barge it to California. “They’re saving money on the backs or our beautiful states.”

Arthur Babitz, mayor of Hood River, said he talked to two dozen fire chiefs in the gorge, and they said few if any had training, and they had little foam on hand to fight an oil fire.

He suggested a risk analysis, which the commission agreed to include in the resolution.

He said his city built a major water pipeline, and did a full analysis before a “single shovelful” of dirt was moved. Yet, here, a de facto oil pipeline was being created through the gorge without any risk analysis, he said.

Commenter Jim Chase said hauling Bakken crude is “playing Russian Roulette with more bullets in the gun.”

He likened this type of crude to the Chevy Corvair, the deadly automobile Ralph Nader exposed in his book “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

“GM had designed a car that killed people,” and the automaker took all kinds of shortcuts making it. “So it is with these trains. Nothing will make them safe.”

He said the business approach of Big Oil was that it’s “ok to poison the river” as long as it’s not too obvious and it’s OK to dump oil in the river as long as it’s rare. “It’s just a cost of being in business.”

Keith Brown, a volunteer firefighter in Skamania County, said he’d seen fires started from passing trains. If oil spilled, and there’s an easterly wind, “We will have another 1906 Yacolt Burn,” he said, referring to a devastating fire.

Peter Wright, a former adjunct professor of environmental economics at Stanford University, suggested viewing the Columbia River Gorge as a family member, and viewing the river as their digestive tract. He said accepting the oil trains was like asking a family member to take 100 poisonous capsules into their body that could erupt.

“Would you do it to your wife and children? If not, don’t do it to the gorge.”

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