Oregon Fire Chief Says She's Not Ready For Oil Fires

Portland's fire chief told legislators her department doesn't have the capabilities to extinguish an oil train fire or equipment to deal with catastrophic oil emergencies.


April 29--Oregon legislators have now been schooled in Oil Train Safety 101.

Dozens of elected officials, firefighters and bureaucrats met Tuesday morning in Portland at a Linnton rail yard to hear what's done in Oregon to address the risks posed by the rapid rise in crude oil moving by rail.

They heard from railroad companies, oil spill planners and emergency officials. They got up close with oil tank cars, met the state's lone hazardous materials rail inspector and saw the equipment that would be used to contain spills.

While the event organized by Gov. John Kitzhaber underscored what is done to keep oil trains safe, an attendee would've needed to only drive five miles east on U.S. Highway 30 to see what isn't.

There, along the Willamette River, an oil train spent the morning unloading its contents from outdated tank cars. The cars carrying oil were less-safe versions that lacked protective steel shields on each end.

They'd arrived at the site by passing through Portland, a city that doesn't have the capability to extinguish an oil train fire.

Portland Fire Chief Erin Janssens, who attended Tuesday's briefing, said in an interview that the city's fire department doesn't have the right equipment to put out the types of catastrophic oil train fires that happened after derailments in Quebec, Alabama and North Dakota last year.

Extinguishing a petroleum-based fire requires a specialized type of foam. Portland Fire has five-gallon buckets of foam, but not larger 265-gallon totes that would allow it to be applied continuously to a major fire, Janssens said.

"I don't know if we could spin caps off (the buckets) fast enough to get it applied," Janssens said. "To suppress the fire requires a lot of foam and an uninterrupted supply. We don't have that today."

Portland would rely on first responders from Vancouver, Wash., and the Port of Portland, Janssens said. The Port of Portland keeps large stores of foam to extinguish fires at Portland International Airport, which it manages.

Kitzhaber, who didn't attend the event, ordered a top-to-bottom review of oil train safety in February. In a letter to Oregon's federal delegation released Tuesday, Kitzhaber urged federal reforms and said Oregon would also take steps to tighten oil train safety.

"I am mindful that the derailment of trains carrying this type of crude oil could have devastating impacts to environmentally sensitive areas in Oregon and to human life," Kitzhaber wrote. "Ensuring the safe transport of hazardous materials by rail is of paramount importance to all Americans."

Kitzhaber said Oregon was exploring whether the state has adequate rail safety inspections and enough training for first responders. The state is planning a hazmat training for first responders in May.

-- Rob Davis

Copyright 2014 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.