Stricter rules needed for oil trains

Oil trains hauling crude through the Columbia Gorge and other parts of Oregon are an unfortunate fact of life, but that doesn't mean the state shouldn't demand better safety precautions from railroads transporting the volatile material.

Prompted by a derailment and resulting spill and fire last June in Mosier, legislators are considering bills that would impose new restrictions on railroads hauling crude in the state. In that accident, 16 tank cars derailed, four ruptured and 42,000 gallons of crude spilled, although the oil did not reach the Columbia River. The shipment originated in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, the source of a particularly explosive form of crude.

In a Monday hearing, a representative of Friends of the Columbia Gorge told lawmakers that Oregon has the weakest safety rules for oil trains on the West Coast.

Union Pacific and BNSF railroads opposed a 2015 bill that would have brought Oregon law into line with Washington and California. That bill failed to pass. Instead, lawmakers adopted a measure requiring training for first responders.

One new measure, House Bill 2131, would give the state Department of Environmental Quality oversight over railroads' plans to respond to spills. It would also collect fees from railroads to pay for that oversight. California and Washington already have such provisions.

The other bill, HB 3344, would require railroads to provide statements of financial responsibility for spills — something else California and Washington require that Oregon does not.

Environmental groups and others concerned about climate change will argue that no oil should be shipped anywhere, not only because of the risk but because fossil fuels should be eliminated. That's a nice ideal, but it's not realistic. Unless everyone stops driving cars tomorrow, oil still will be required to produce gasoline for the time being. In addition, states cannot legally ban oil shipments by railroads, which are regulated by federal law.

That doesn't mean those shipments can't be made safer. Oregon's safeguards should be at least as strict as those of our neighbors to the north and south.

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