The Dalles City Councilor Dan Spatz failed to garner support Monday for his call to have the owners and operators of Bakken crude oil production pay all costs associated with tanker car derailments and fires anywhere in the U.S.
“We might consider it a little ambitious but I consider it a serious issue and it needs to be a little ambitious,” said Spatz prior to reading his proposed resolution.
A resolution is a statement of opinion by a government body that carries no force of law.
Spatz said the train derailment in Mosier on June 3 that resulted in four out of 16 derailed oil tanker cars catching fire was behind his latest push for change.
Bakken crude oil is more volatile than other types of crude. The Bakken crude in the Mosier derailment had been “degassed,” making it less volatile, but still very flammable, a federal official said earlier.
Earlier this year Spatz tried unsuccessfully to get the council to join other gorge cities in opposition to the Tesoro-Savage Vancouver Energy Project in Washington.
Crude oil would be carried by trains to that proposed facility and then loaded onto ocean-going vessels for transport to West Coast refineries.
In January 2015, Spatz was successful in getting unanimous support from the council to join Hood River, Mosier and other gorge towns in urging state officials to pursue greater federal regulation of oil transports.
At the June 13 meeting, Spatz wanted the council to join government and tribal leaders demanding that federal officials enact an immediate moratorium on all crude-by-rail shipments until liability had been formally assigned to Bakken producers.
With Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe transporting about 400,000 carloads of crude in 2014, more than 40 times as much as in 2008, Spatz said communities along the tracks needed to be better protected.
He said there were an estimated 1.8 million lag bolts on the UP line between The Dalles and Portland, several of which failed and caused the June 3 derailment.
Even though crude oil is not the only hazardous material transported by rail, Spatz said these shipments posed a unique danger due to the sheer quantity of oil carried on “unit trains,” those without other cargo.
Less than one-third of the nation’s 39,000 rail tanker cars meet enhanced safety guidelines recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board for shipments, according to the information presented by Spatz.
“As the largest city in the scenic area, we are in a unique position to lead on what is a national safety concern,” he said.
The motion made by Spatz died due to lack of a second. Councilor Taner Elliott noted that city officials had no jurisdiction over interstate commerce.
Mayor Steve Lawrence is not allowed to vote unless there is a tie on the council.
He briefed the council and audience about what he had learned during a Monday meeting with UP executives.
“They are doing a lot of things that I didn’t know about,” he said.
For example, he said UP planned to replace lag bolts with a fastener system involving spikes because they would be easy to spot if broken. He said rail inspections were now taking place three times a week in the gorge and UP had someone walking the track looking for problems once a month.
In a follow-up interview, Kenneth Sito, head of UP’s engineering department, said elastic fasteners with the spike will “look a little like a pretzel” when put in place. He said the spike locks down the fastener plate and will be sheared off if it works loose so inspectors will be able to see the problem quickly.
The broken lag bolts that caused the Mosier derailment looked intact but allowed the rails to spread, which caused tank car wheels to move off the rail, according to UP.
Lawrence said UP has had problems with the current fasteners only twice in the 16 years they have been used.
However, he felt extra safety steps needed to be taken to protect citizens and the environment in the gorge, which is federally protected because of its scenic vistas.
“I was very upset about this derailment,” he said.
Following the June 3 incident, Lawrence joined the mayors of Hood River and Mosier in calling for federal officials to stop the shipment of hazardous materials through the gorge.
“Nothing really changes unless Congress changes it so that’s where we need to put the pressure if we’re concerned,” he said Monday.
UP operates more than 1,000 miles of track following the historic route of the Oregon Trail over the Blue Mountains, according to information provided to the city by the company.
The tracks wind along the south bank of the Columbia River to Portland and runs south from the metro area to Oregon’s border with California, generally along the Interstate 5 corridor. About 1,600 people in the state are employed by the railroad.
Crude oil makes up less than 1 percent of the products Union Pacific moves in Oregon, according to railroad officials.