More than 150 people from federal, state, tribal, and local governments and BNSF Railroad convened at the Fort Dalles Readiness Center in The Dalles on June 13 to practice responding to a large-scale railroad oil spill. In the imaginary scenario, 23 tank cars carrying 540,000 gallons of crude oil derail along the Deschutes River near its convergence with the Columbia River.
The group’s goal: to develop and implement plans to quickly contain and clean up the imaginary spill to protect public health and minimize damage to the environment.
The event was Oregon’s first large-scale training exercise designed to help the state better prepare for a major oil spill from a railroad. Exercises such as this are now a requirement in Oregon: with authority from House Bill 2209, passed by the legislature in 2019, DEQ requires railroads that transport oil to prepare and practice spill response plans so they can quickly and effectively respond in the case of a real event.
This involves coordination across all levels of government and includes environmental, public health and safety, cultural resources, transportation, fish and wildlife, and media and community relations activities.
Over 380 million gallons of oil come into Oregon each year by rail, posing a risk to the environments and communities it travels through. The oil spill preparedness activities now required of railroads are similar to those required of ships, pipelines and other facilities that transport or load-unload oil in Oregon.
The agencies leading the simulated response formed a structure known as a Unified Command to oversee the imaginary response. The Unified Command consisted of one representative each from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Washington State Department of Ecology, Wasco County Sheriff’s Office, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Yakama Nation and BNSF Railway.
“I think overall, it was a huge success,” said Kyrion Gray, high hazard rail planner with DEQ. “We learned a lot, and most importantly, we made some invaluable connections that will be huge in building our program further. The joint Washington and Oregon partnership is so important, and these events really solidify our dual responsibility and capability.”
—Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist