As trains carrying crude oil stream through the Gorge on a weekly basis, the area’s emergency responders are busy preparing for potential derailments and the chaos that could follow.
Most recently of note, three local firefighters attended a three-day training exercise at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) in Pueblo, Colo. The training was sponsored by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and focused on planning for and controlling an oil train derailment.
David Spratt, who was one of three local firefighters who joined the training, said he had never attended such an exercise in his 19 years with the Bingen Fire Depart-ment.
“I feel better knowing what to do in case there is a derailment and I’d like to see more firefighters from our departments and other departments go to it because it’s a real eye-opener,” Spratt said.
Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes said that she and White Salmon Mayor David Poucher would have never known the training was available had it not been for a BNSF representative conducting a presentation on it at a forum previously held by White Salmon resident Kevin Herman.
White Salmon Fire Captain Jess Wardwell and Klickitat County Fire District 3 Firefighter Cody Crone also attended the training in Colorado, a day and a half of which consisted of a classroom session where emergency responders learned about the history of crude oil, planning for crude oil incidents, chemical and physical hazards of crude oil, detection and monitoring of crude oil, construction of tank cars, site assessments, tactical considerations for product control, and fire suppression and control issues.
Firefighters were also able to witness a “boil over,” which occurs when water is introduced into a burning tank car. Wardwell said the SERTC is the only place in the world where a boil over is simulated.
“Firefighters are usually trained to put water on fire, so it was interesting to learn the science and fact behind why this isn’t the best practice for this type of incident,” Wardwell wrote in an e-mail to The Enterprise.
The second portion of the training consisted of a walkthrough of a derailed train so firefighters could see the construction of rail cars and how it can relate to an emergency response, according to Wardwell. Firefighters were able to learn about the various tools used to combat fires that occur during a train derailment and then gain hands-on experience with those tools to practice techniques in fighting a fire spurring from flammable liquids.
Wardwell said in his 17 years volunteering for the White Salmon Fire Department he had also never been to a training focusing on oil train derailments.
That said, he admits the amount of oil train traffic traveling through the area is still a concern due to the complexity in controlling a derailment. While BNSF, state, and federal resources are available, Wardwell said it is estimated that it would take between three and six hours before any of those resources would be deployed at a derailment site.
That means Klickitat County’s first responders need to be ready, but Wardwell said that’s difficult when local fire departments operate exclusively on the volunteer efforts of residents.
“There is so much planning coordination and preparation that needs to happen, but it isn’t feasible with a 100 percent volunteer department. We’re already beyond our bandwidth in just keeping up with state and (National Fire Protection Association) training requirements because there are so many, plus responding to day-to-day emergencies, upkeep of our equipment, attempting to educate the community about safety issues and wildfire preparedness, plus working full or part-time jobs and tending to family. In addition, we must research and apply for grants in order to provide our community with reliable emergency equipment, but those funds are becoming harder to obtain, not to mention that our volunteer force has shrunk by 30 percent since 2007, leaving fewer of us to do more tasks,” Wardwell wrote.
He added that a paid, full-time fire chief could aid greatly in preparing for a derailment or other serious situation, but that would take funding likely only available through a levy lid lift.
“Paid administrators could obtain training from outside our districts and bring that valuable information back to our volunteers who can’t get enough time off work to attend these great trainings. We were fortunate enough to send three members from the local fire agencies to this training, but that’s not always possible,” Wardwell wrote. “Unfortunately, many of the departments in Klicktiat County, including White Salmon, do not have the funding to provide this asset. I wonder if the public desires to ad this asset in White Salmon. If so, would they support a levy lid lift to have a paid fire administrator in White Salmon?”
While the three firefighters that attended the SERTC training from Klickitat County is a good start, it is the hope that more can follow suit, but the sessions through the remainder of the year are booked.
Spratt said a separate one-day training attended by more local firefighters was held about a month ago by Justin Piper, manager of hazardous materials field operations emergency response for BNSF. During that training, Piper introduced firefighters to the rail cars that commonly transport commodities through Klickitat County and went over the basics of crude oil.
Additionally, a tabletop exercise organized by Klickitat County Emergency Services conducted last week focused on what would happen if an oil train derailed in Bingen and blocked off routes leading to and from Bingen Point.
Ed Powell, director of Klickitat County Emergency Services, said he hopes to have a plan of action regarding oil train derailments finalized at some point. Spratt said he is also working on a crude-by-rail emergency action plan specifically dedicated to Bingen, but Wardwell said one plan cannot cover all scenarios in the event of a derailment.
“For example, you would apply different tactics for a train derailment in the city of Bingen than, say, a derailment in a non-populated area east of town. Topography and population density vary greatly in our county. It’s not as simple as saying ‘a train derailed…go fight the fire and save lives.’ It’s a complex coordination of local, regional, state and federal resources to protect life, property and the environment,” Wardwell wrote.