Firefighters need to know where all oil trains move, Sens. Boxer, Feinstein say, joining Wyden, Merkley

On a hot summer day in Oklahoma in 2008, a train mostly carrying general freight – oats, corn, beer, lumber and grain – ran off the rails near Luther, northeast of Oklahoma City.

Eight cars filled with crude oil and one with methanol derailed, erupted in a fiery mushroom cloud and burned for 21 hours, forcing 35 people to evacuate.

Four years later in Columbus, Ohio, three ethanol cars derailed in an accident that caused a blaze that injured one person and forced 100 to evacuate.

Under a federal rule being finalized, railroads carrying small loads of flammable liquids like those don’t have to tell firefighters or the public what they’re moving.

But those accidents are evidence that small loads still pose serious risks, say Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrats, and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, California Democrats.

“We believe railroads should supply first responders with more transparent information about crude-by-rail and other flammable liquid shipments traveling through communities in Oregon, California, and other states across the nation,” the senators said in a joint Monday letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Since May, railroad companies have had to notify first responders around the country about where they move large loads of volatile oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region. The Transportation Department forced the disclosure, providing the clearest picture of where North Dakota oil moves in the United States.

But the order had a limited impact in Oregon because it only applied to trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of oil from North Dakota. Firefighters in the Columbia River Gorge, for example, don’t have to be notified about the shipments of oil from Utah that pass through.

Wyden and Merkley have protested that the requirement didn’t apply more broadly.

Now they’ve been joined by two more influential voices, Boxer and Feinstein, who told Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx they want to see more transparency for flammable materials’ rail routes. Most oil received by rail in California since 2012 has come from Canada and passed through Oregon, the senators noted. Those shipments’ routes and frequencies would remain secret under the proposal.

“We believe the limited scope would keep many towns, cities and rural areas in our states in the dark about substantial volumes of non-Bakken oil and other flammable liquids traveling in large volumes,” the four senators said in their letter.

A Transportation Department spokesman confirmed the letter had been received and said the senators’ comments would be considered during a formal rule-making process.