Federal rail investigators would have the power to respond to major derailments by halting new oil shipments until full investigations are completed under legislation introduced Wednesday by Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
The Democratic senators also are seeking $2 million to help pay for new investigators, while requiring the federal Department of Transportation to investigate every major derailment and set standards for the volatility of crude oil being carried on U.S. rail lines.
Their proposed legislation is sparked by the June 3 derailment in the Columbia River Gorge of a train loaded with 94 cars of Bakken crude oil. Four cars caught fire during the derailment, igniting a fire that burned for 14 hours, closed Interstate 84 and forced the evacuation of at least 100 residents living near the tiny Columbia River town of Mosier.
“We need to treat these accidents the way we treat a situation when a commercial jet goes down in the United States,” Merkley said during a conference call with reporters. “When that happens, we learn every possible thing during a third-party investigation about why the crash occurred and then put moratoriums in place until everything is fixed.”
Both Merkley and Wyden said they were stunned by the National Transportation Safety Board’s decision immediately after the accident not to investigate the derailment.
They were further taken aback, they said, when they were informed that any followup work looking at the accident’s cause would be undertaken by Union Pacific, which operated the train that derailed.
“What this whole process really resembles,” Wyden said, “is Colonel Sanders guarding the chicken coop.”
The railroad determined that sheared-off lag bolts along one section of the track caused the cars to derail.
Both senators said their new proposal is a companion piece to a bill Wyden introduced in April 2015, which is intended to accelerate the transition away from outdated tank cars.
That effort, which now has 12 sponsors in addition to Wyden and Merkley, imposes a fee starting at $175 per car on any shipment carried in old tankers – known as DOT-111s – which are widely used to move oil extracted in North Dakota to coastal refineries.
The cars lack protective shields and are prone to ripping open in derailments. The fee would eventually climb to $1,400 per car by 2019.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici has introduced similar legislation into the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Between these two bills, we are now moving toward approaching solutions that will solve the real problems,” Wyden said.
Release of the new legislation came on the same day that federal transportation officials issued rules requiring railroads to provide local authorities with more information about shipments of not only crude oil, but of other flammable liquids, as well.
“We’ve called for this since 2014,” Wyden said. “We think first responders in Oregon and across the country to know when trains carrying hazardous materials are traveling through their communities.”
At the time of the derailment, the NTSB, in a move criticized by Wyden at the time, cited a lack of staffing in its decision not to investigate the derailment.
The agency added that it did not send a team to Mosier because the incident involved no injuries or deaths and because initial findings provided by Union Pacific Railroad, first responders and the Federal Railroad Administration “indicated that the circumstances of this incident did not pose any new significant safety issues.”
The train was on its way to Tacoma, Washington, from Eastport, Idaho.