Local first responders not prepared for potential oil train explosion

A controversial oil terminal proposed at the Port of Vancouver has some city leaders and residents concerned about possible risks associated with the trains that would ship the oil to the facility. Emergency responders in both Vancouver and Portland aren't sure if their current hazardous materials response plans could handle an oil train explosion.

More than 100 people signed up to speak before the Vancouver City Council on Monday night. The meeting was moved from City Hall next door to the Hilton Hotel to accommodate the number of people.

The City Council is taking up two resolutions. One would require the city to intervene with a state proceeding on whether the Tesoro Savage oil terminal could be built. The other resolution would require the city to oppose the building of the terminal.

Tesoro Savage filed an application with the Washington State Energy Site Evaluation Council last August. The state will evaluate the application, and then Gov. Jay Inslee will make a final decision on the facility's future. The Port of Vancouver has already approved the facility.

Tesoro estimates the terminal will bring 1,200 new jobs to the Vancouver area, generate $19 million in annual tax revenue for state and local coffers, and raise $145 million to the port through a 10-year lease period.

Tesoro reports the facility would handle up to 360,000 barrels of crude oil per day. It would be shipped on up to four trains. The oil would be transferred from the trains to storage containers at the facility, and then loaded on barges and shipped to West Coast refineries in the United States and Canada.

Some of the oil on the trains will carry Bakken crude oil, which some industry findings say is more flammable and volatile than other crude oil. It comes from the Bakken region of North AmericaMontana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Recently, trains carrying Bakken crude oil have exploded in Lynchburg, Virginia and in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

No one was killed or injured in the Virginia accident, which occurred on April 30. But the town of 78,000 people had to be evacuated because of toxic smoke.

The Quebec disaster killed 47 people and leveled 30 buildings, destroying the center of the village. The train produced a fireball just over half a mile in radius, and people were evacuated for one-and-a-half miles around the city. This is a worst-case scenario.

While incidents like those have been uncommon, local emergency responders are preparing for such a disaster in Portland or Vancouver.

Trains that carry Bakken crude oil are already rolling through the heart of Portland on their way to a refinery in Scappoose. A terminal in Vancouver means even more mile-long oil trains arriving on our doorstep.

Vancouver's fire chief is on record as saying he's not sure his current hazmat response plan could cover all that extra risk.

The Portland Fire Bureau already knows it needs more equipment in the event of a massive oil train explosion.

"We are concerned that the size of some of these trains that we could possibly overwhelm our current resources," said Portland Fire Bureau spokesman Rich Chatman.

"With an issue with these trains, and certainly compared to some of the issues they've already had around the continent, we're looking at a larger area and we're looking at an impact that is much greater than the normal large scale emergency that we see," Chatman said.

If an event involving an oil train, like the disaster in Quebec, were to happen in Portland, it would challenge crews. Chatman said the bureau needs additional equipment to deal with such an explosion.

"In order to deal with a fire of the magnitude that we're talking about with these trains, we really need some large capacity foam resources. That's something that we've made very clear to at least the state that we're in need of to fight fires," Chatman said.

An oil train disaster requires a continuous blanket of foam to put it out because of the amount and type of crude that the trains carry.

"The foam actually covers over the product and prevents the vapors that are flammable from actually rising; so basically it creates a blanket over that oil," Chatman said.

Right now, each Portland fire truck carries foam in multiple five-gallon buckets. Some of trucks have a 200 gallon tank to hold foam. But Chatman said that's not enough for an oil train explosion.

"The problem is when these accidents happen, they have a tremendous impact. So, that's why we're putting the time and effort into the training, into the identification of the product, how much of it's coming in to our state," Chatman said.

Chatman said if an oil train accident were to happen today, Portland firefighters would respond with a "tiered response." That means the closest fire houses to the disaster would respond first, then other crews from farther away in the city would respond. And they'd likely call in a foam truck from Portland International Airport.

The state emergency management office is also studying the potential problems of oil trains. It plans to work with local emergency crews on response plans.

The United States Department of Transportation issued a ruling earlier this month that all rail companies must report crude shipments, including Bakken crude, to state emergency management offices.