Letter to the Editor for March 1, 2016

BNSF oil trains present unmitigated hazard to Gorge

First let me point out that this is my view as chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Skamania County Fire District 4 and not necessarily the view of the Board, as it has not reviewed the content.

Skamania County Fire District 4 provides fire protection and emergency medical services in a 45 square mile area at the west end of Skamania County which includes a portion of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. There are approximately 7 miles of BNSF Railway Company tracks in the fire district starting west from the Clark/Skamania County line to Smith-Cripe Road in the east. BNSF tracks are used for the transport of Bakken crude oil.

The danger of Bakken oil train derailment and subsequent fires has been clearly demonstrated in Quebec: 63 cars derailed with subsequent fire – 47 fatalities; Aliceville, Alabama, 30 derailed, 12 caught fire; Casselton, North Dakota, 34 derailed, 20 caught fire; Lynchburg, Virginia, 15 derailed, three caught fire; Galena, Illinois, 21 derailed, five caught fire and Mount Carbon, West Virginia, 27 derailed, 15 caught fire and burned for four days. A minimum of three cars have burned with each derailment, with an average of 11 per incident. According to the Sightline Institute which has done substantial research on this issue, derailments and subsequent fires have occurred in a variety of conditions including warm weather, cold weather, new track, old track, new rail cars (current federal standard) and old rail cars.

Approximately 5 miles of BNSF tracks in the district are inaccessible by firefighters with required fire apparatus. Additional training, apparatus, manpower and Class B foam necessary for oil fire suppression (there is not sufficient foam in the region to deal with a significant fire) do not address the inaccessibility of these locations. Furthermore, in locations where access might be feasible, even with statewide resources provided under state mobilization, it is not possible to provide the amounts of water required for fire suppression and protection of exposures (non-burning rail cars, etc.) through over the road, water tender and tanker water delivery operations. The suggestion that these types of fires can be extinguished in our region demonstrates an ignorance of these facts.

The non-intervention tactic of allowing Bakken crude oil fires to burn out on their own presents a clear fire and life safety danger to the residents of the district, Skamania County and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area at large. This is compounded by the fact that tracks are in heavily wooded areas and the region is susceptible to extremely high winds creating an exposure to substantial wild land fire risk.

Skamania County Fire District 4’s official position is “After careful analysis, it has been determined that with the exception of the smallest fires in accessible locations, it is not possible for fire service resources to extinguish Bakken oil train fires in the Western Columbia River Gorge.” BNSF cannot guarantee that a derailment and subsequent fire will not occur. When it does, it will be devastating to the Gorge. If you are not familiar with the impact of these fires, simply Google “Bakken oil train fires,” and click on images.

According to the railroad: “BNSF currently pulls 2 to 2-1/2 trains of crude oil through the Gorge daily.” That number could increase to 19 daily, an increase of more than seven times, should all of the proposed oil terminal projects be completed. The Gorge is exposed to an existing and future unprecedented, unmitigated risk.

BNSF and the oil terminal operators, who own the rail cars, cannot guarantee the safety of these trains. The transport of Bakken crude oil by rail needs to be stopped for the safety of residents and visitors of the district, Skamania County and the Columbia River Gorge at large.

Timothy W. Young, Chairman Board of Commissioners, Skamania County Fire District 4