After calling for a statewide moratorium on oil train transport in June, NECN expanded its advocacy on the issue over the summer, even as the state approved plans for more oil trains to pass through Portland.In late August, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit for a terminal on the Columbia River near Clatskanie, where oil shipped from North Dakota will be loaded onto barges bound for Washington and California refineries. The 1.8 million gallons of oil moved through this terminal each year means up to 50 trains per month could pass through Portland and small towns along the Columbia, including Scappoose, Rainier and St. Helens.
Alarmed by proposals that could increase the transshipment of oil through Portland, including the Clatskanie terminal, NECN’s Safety and Livability Team (SALT) began working on a response last spring. In June, the committee drafted a letter calling for a moratorium, which was adopted by the NECN board and sent to local and state officials. The letter expressed concerns about the environmental implications of potential oil spills on the Columbia, and, even more urgently, the volatility of crude oil and the risk of explosive accidents.
Woodlawn neighbor and SALT member Byron Tennant, who has spearheaded NECN’s advocacy against increased oil train traffic, is particularly concerned by the alarming track record of this particular transport method. Among other recent incidents, the July 2013 derailment of an oil train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, caused an explosion that claimed the lives of 42 residents.
Over the summer, Tennant represented NECN in testimony at Columbia River Gorge Commission and Oregon Transportation Commission hearings. “One of the things that makes Portland great is that it sits on the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers,” Tennant says. “Our traditional model has been to put industry on these rivers, with little attention to impacts on quality of life for humans and all life forms.”
A policy aide for Senator Jeff Merkley thanked NECN for its advocacy, stating that the Senator is working “diligently to make oil train companies disclose when oil trains move through the state…and with ODOT to upgrade train safety regulations.”
Along with Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and California Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Merkley is leading a congressional effort to mandate that railroad companies provide first responders with more information about crude-by-rail and flammable liquid shipments.
In a separate response to NECN’s letter, Mayor Charlie Hales’ office shared a resolution that the Mayor introduced at a June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, urging government officials and private industry – including railroads and energy producers – to adopt a “comprehensive approach to keeping communities safe through taking steps that prevent rail accidents from occurring, mitigate the risks of wide-spread damage and better prepare communities for responding to incidents.”
Activists around the region are urgently demanding a response from railroad companies and industry regulators as oil trains continue to move along Northwest railways. In recent weeks, demonstrators blocked the tracks near rail terminals in Everett, Washington, and Port Westward, Oregon.
NECN will continue to monitor this issue in conjunction with Columbia Riverkeeper, the environmental organization that helped the SALT committee draft its June letter calling for a moratorium. For Tennant, a Woodlawn neighborhood resident, the issue hits extremely close to home. He’s concerned that oil trains might use the tracks along NE Lombard St., less than two blocks from Woodlawn School. “There are environmental justice issues at stake here,” he says. “And at the same time, there is a real opportunity for railroad companies to demonstrate their investment in the communities in which they’ve laid their tracks.”