Congressman Greg Walden

Representing the 2nd District of Oregon

Improving safety for the Columbia Gorge and the people who live here

June 10, 2016
Op-Eds

As a lifelong Gorge resident, I’ve seen my share of train derailments, fires and highway accidents over the years. Last week we dodged a bullet when on a hot, calm day an oil train derailed just west of Mosier. Suddenly, the hypothetical accident which our first responders had only recently gotten trained for, became reality. Thankfully, the disaster plans put in place worked, and new requirements in state and federal laws made a difference, too. 

 

My wife and I were at the derailment site last not long after to thank first responders and meet with local officials. 

Due to the quick actions of firefighters and other first responders, the situation was contained quickly with no injuries or loss of life. For that, they deserve our thanks and heartfelt gratitude. But saying “thank you” is not enough. We must find out exactly what happened and then do everything possible to prevent another derailment or spill. After all, there are many volatile or hazardous commodities besides crude oil that go up and down the gorge every day on the river, on the rail lines and on the roads.  

In March of 2015, I called on the Secretary of Transportation to finalize new safety guidelines for rail tank cars. The law mandated that these be complete by January 2015, but they didn’t come out until May of that year.

The final regulations didn’t go far enough, though, so Congress passed the FAST Act, a long-term, surface transportation plan that will improve the safety and reliability of roads, bridges, and railways. The law makes several safety improvements that the Department of Transportation failed to address in its rules. Under the new law, railroads are required to provide state and local emergency responders with information on crude-by-rail shipments within their states. Additionally, all new tank cars carrying flammable liquids must have a thermal blanket to improve safety in an accident.

Click here or on the image below to watch my floor speech on the FAST Act and rail safety

 

 

Importantly, the law requires a phasing out of all older rail cars and requires them to be replaced or retrofitted to meet new safety standards. Without this provision, over 40,000 of the older cars would have remained on the rails carrying hazardous materials like crude oil. This phase out must occur by January 1, 2018.

Fortunately, the cars involved in last week’s derailment had enhanced safety valves and liners, but in areas of critical environmental sensitivity, such as the Columbia Gorge, we need to move to the next generation of cars that are built even tougher.

This week, Rep. Peter DeFazio and I called on the Transportation Secretary to provide a status update as to the replacement of these older cars with the newest, safest models. I’ve also called on the Secretary to prioritize the use of the newest, safest cars in environmentally sensitive areas like the Columbia Gorge. We must ensure that these rail cars are as safe as possible in areas as delicate as the Gorge.

It’s not just about getting to safer cars sooner, though. We need to make sure that track improvements are made. If there’s better technology available to hold the track in place, then for all of our safety, the rail roads need to retrofit their lines accordingly.  

And we need the Department of Transportation to finish its work on the rule for spill response. This rule has languished at the Department since 2014. The Secretary wrote to Congress, stating that the final rule will likely be issued in June 2017. That is far too long for communities throughout the U.S., especially here in Oregon.

Railroads are just one piece of the puzzle. All infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and pipelines, need to be as safe as possible as well. Just days ago, Congress passed a new, bipartisan law to improve the safety of pipelines nationwide. It’s unfortunate that more crude oil isn’t shipped by pipelines, rather than by rail of truck.  

Last year, as part of that long-term transportation funding and safety law, Congress passed legislation I wrote to help improve infrastructure in the Columbia Gorge. Residents and visitors alike depend on efficient and safe transportation in the Columbia Gorge. Taking care of our bridges and highways matters. The federal government must recognize that unique areas like the Gorge should be eligible for transportation projects to replace crumbling roads and bridges.

I’ve lived here in the Gorge all my life, and I know what a special place it is. We must protect the people who live in our communities here, as well as the natural beauty of the place we call home.