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article imageFeds blame railroad for oil train derailment, spill in Oregon

By Nathan Salant     Jun 28, 2016 in Environment
Portland - Calls for a U.S. ban on shipping oil by train got louder last week after federal investigators put the blame for a June 3 oil train derailment on Union Pacific Railroad.
State and local officials in Oregon asked federal railroad regulators to halt the use of train tank cars to haul heavy crude from shale oil fields in the northern states and Canada to U.S. refineries until safety is improved.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called for a moratorium on shipping oil by rail until the system is made safer, according to the Associated Press.
The statements came after a preliminary determination by Federal Railroad Administration investigators that inadequate track maintenance by Union Pacific was likely responsible for a June 3 derailment that spilled more than 40,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River and sparked a 14-hour fire near the small city of Mosier, Ore.
The federal agency, which is still investigating the mishap on the Oregon-Washington border, said June 23 that the railroad's own inspectors apparently missed a series of broken lag bolts that are supposed to keep the train rails from separating when they last checked the tracks on May 31.
That separation is what caused the derailment, the AP said.
Union Pacific is responsible for track maintenance and may face penalties for safety violations, investigators said.
"We feel like it could have been prevented with closer inspections, better maintenance," acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg said.
The Oregon derailment also reignited calls for improved braking systems on U.S. railroads, the AP said.
Officials said the accident might have been significantly less severe if the train was outfitted with advanced electronic brakes, which could have prevented many of the 16 that derailed cars from leaving the track and stopped the first one that caught fire from being punctured.
"We're talking about upgrading a brake system that is from the Civil War era," Feinberg said.
"It's not too much to ask these companies to improve their braking systems in the event of an accident so fewer cars are derailing," she said.
But the railroad industry led by the Association of American Railroads has consistently lobbied against requiring new brake systems, contending the safety benefits would be "minimal" and the cost could climb as high as $3 billion, the AP said.
Union Pacific did agree to increase inspections from every 18 months to every three months, according to Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs.
But Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns called the railroad's response "outrageous" after Union Pacific announced it would resume running oil trains through the Columbia River Gorge later in the week.
"Where else are there rusty bolts that could fail?" she told the AP.
"I think it's outrageous that they're telling us it's safe," Burns said.
At least 27 oil trains have been involved in major derailments, fires or oil spills in the U.S. and Canada in the past decade, the AP said.
Increased use of oil trains also have sparked controversy in California, where proposals to refine fracked crude in local refineries have been met by protests in San Francisco Bay Area cities.
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