Federal grant funds could help Vancouver Fire Department plan for potential oil-train derailments, explosions

VANCOUVER — With two major rail projects in the works — including one that could bring up to 360,000 barrels of highly flammable Bakken crude oil into Vancouver every day — the question of how local fire departments might respond to a rail incident has never been more pertinent.


“From the public’s perspective, there’s work to be done and there’s risk and we want to be prepared for it,” says Vancouver Fire Department Division Chief Steve Eldred.


High-profile oil train derailments in Canada and the United States over the past few years have peaked the public’s interest in understanding the dangers associated with shipping crude oil by rail and in figuring out how local fire departments might respond to similar accidents in their own towns.

Vancouver Fire Department plan for potential oil-train derailments
High-profile oil train derailments in Canada and the United States over the past few years have peaked the public’s interest in understanding the dangers associated with shipping crude oil by rail and in figuring out how local fire departments might respond to similar accidents in their own towns. Photo by Mike Schultz

The 2013 crude-oil train explosion in the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, which killed 47 people and decimated half of Lac-Mégantic’s downtown, was one of the deadliest, but for many people living in southwest Washington, the June of 2016 train derailment and subsequent crude-oil fire in the Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, seven miles east of Hood River, Ore., hit a bit closer to home.


Like the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the Mosier incident also involved rail cars carrying Bakken crude oil. When an emergency braking system accidentally engaged, 16 of the Union Pacific train’s 96 rail cars came off the tracks, spilling an estimated 42,000 gallons of highly flammable crude oil. Some of the oil went into the nearby Columbia River, but most caught on fire, prompting a massive firefighting and containment effort from 20 different agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and a special airport fire tender from the Portland International Airport. The fire took more than 10 hours to extinguish and most of the firefighting efforts were dedicated to keeping the remaining train cars from catching fire.


Jim Appleton, the fire chief in charge of Mosier’s mainly volunteer fire department, later told Oregon Public Broadcasting he was surprised to learn that the firefighting foam promoted as a fire suppressant for oil fires didn’t do much good for the first several hours of the raging Mosier oil fire because “the metal is too hot and the foam will land on the white-hot metal and evaporate without any suppression effort.”  


About one month after the Mosier derailment, Appleton testified before the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), on the matter of Vancouver Energy’s proposed oil-by-rail project in Vancouver, saying his experienced had changed his mind about oil trains and that he now feels crude-by-rail projects pose too many risks to the residents in towns along the rail lines and are “not something we should be tolerating.”


For their part, Vancouver Energy — a partnership between the Tesoro and Savage corporations — insists that their Port of Vancouver crude oil rail-to-ship project will be safe, utilizing rail cars that are sturdier and less prone to the type of accident that happened in Mosier. Tesoro has said it will upgrade its entire fleet of crude-oil rail cars to include thick-shelled cars that exceed federal standards.


Jared Larrabee, general manager of the Vancouver Energy project also testified at the July EFSEC hearings on the planned Port of Vancouver crude oil rail-to-ship project, and said the company wanted to help ensure the safety of its project.


“We certainly want to be part of the solution to make sure things like this (the Mosier derailment) don’t happen,” Larrabee said.  

Clark County first responders and political leaders were already talking about oil train derailment prep before the June 2016 Mosier incident, but Joel Rubin, federal government affairs vice president for CFM Strategic Communications, Inc., the lobbying firm representing the city of Vancouver’s interests at the federal level, said the Mosier incident made the matter even more pressing for Vancouver first-responders.


“In Mosier, we saw what could happen in a more densely populated area,” Rubin told Vancouver City Councilmembers in early December, during a briefing on the 2017 federal legislative agenda. “We’re doing all we can to make sure Vancouver firefighters and police have all they can to respond to these (types of) accidents.”


But being prepared for something like an oil train fire isn’t something that the fire department can do overnight, says Eldred, who leads the Vancouver Fire Department’s emergency services division.


“People ask us, ‘What do we need? What kind of firefighting tools and equipment do we need?’” Eldred says. “But one of the things that we in the fire department wanted to look at when the crude-oil issue came up was: What type of equipment really supports our ability to manage that type of incident?”


Before the fire department can pinpoint an exact list of equipment, procedures and materials that could help them contain and fight potential crude-oil rail accidents and fires, Eldred says it’s important to assess the risk and see what the fire department’s current capabilities really are.


“We want to determine what additional risk comes with those [types] of responses, then have a list that identifies our needs,” Eldred says.


He adds that preparing for these types of incident responses takes time and money — two things that fire departments don’t often have at their disposal. One possible source of federal funding for the type of pre-planning Vancouver Fire Department leaders would like to see happen sooner rather than later is the Assistance to Firefighter’s Grant Program, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


The FEMA grant could fund the Vancouver Fire Department’s planning efforts, but getting funding for necessary equipment to fight oil-train fires is another matter.


U.S. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler, who represents Southwest Washington’s 3rd congressional district, has written legislation advising FEMA to move hazmat operations, training and equipment related to crude-by-rail incident responses as a “high priority” for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program.


Rubin told Vancouver councilmembers in early December that FEMA had shifted priority from “low” to “medium” for this type of crude-by-rail incident response equipment, but cautioned that the change was “not good enough” to get funding for the type of equipment and training that might be needed in the event of a local oil train fire.


“We were able to get Congress to include language in their appropriations bill to make that equipment a high priority but FEMA made it a medium priority and that’s not good enough,” Rubin said. “We need it to be high priority.”


Still, there is a chance that the Vancouver Fire Department could get grant funding to do the type of risk assessment local fire department leaders feel is a necessary first step in responding to future oil train incidents.


“To do that type of planning, to look at what are we doing today and what do we need to do and what can we plan for in the future, you have to hire a consultant and it’s expensive,” Eldred says. “If we can get federal money, we can pay for those consultants.”


Having a plan in place, based on specific risks posed to individual areas of the Vancouver community would help firefighters know what type of response is best for every part of the community,  Eldred says.


“(The oil trains) go through neighborhoods and downtown,” Eldred says. “We need to know where we would put our command posts and to know how to manage the risk based on the environment.”


Although they plan to apply for available federal grants, Eldred says the Vancouver Fire Department is not sitting back waiting on federal money to come in before it starts planning for things like oil train fires.


“In the interim, we are working on  some things,” he says. “We are looking at sections of the railroad and looking at where the oil would flow, where we would have to put our resources … and we’re continuing to look at the resources we have.”


The grant money would be nice, but Eldred says he and other Vancouver Fire leaders are well aware of how competitive such grants are and that they’re competing with hundreds of other fire departments for limited resources.


Regardless, if the Vancouver Energy project goes through and there is an accident, Eldred says his firefighters will be as ready as they can be.


“We have to prepare for it whether we have the resources or not,” Eldred says. “When it happens, we will manage it and we will be dynamic.”


Still, Eldred says the public should also be preparing for such situations.


“We always want to be prepared and we’re continuing to improve our capabilities,” Eldred says. “But our public still has to be prepared themselves. We have 40 firefighters on duty and there’s a neighborhood with a couple thousand people, it’s important for those people to know what they’re going to do in this type of situation … especially for people who live next to the tracks.”


For people who do want to know how to respond in the event of an oil train fire or other type of emergency, the Clark County Fire District 6 Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) group offers basic training courses twice a year for the general public. The next class begins on Thu., Feb. 23 and registration starts in late January of 2017. For more information, email cert@ccfd6.org or visit www.ccfd6.org/cert.html.

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