Oil train disaster preparation: ‘It can be a pretty catastrophic event’

Oil train disaster preparation: ‘It can be a pretty catastrophic event’

Saturday marks three months since the oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon along the Columbia River Gorge.

Pasco Fire Battalion Chief Dave Hare says similar trains carrying hazardous materials pass through the Tri-Cities daily, raising a big question.

“Are we prepared for a major catastrophe?” says Hare. “How do you prepare for something that’s unknown?”

Hare could not comment on the volume of materials that passes through eastern Washington on a daily basis, but says the amount is significant.

The Mosier train disaster may have opened eyes in the Pacific Northwest, but Hare says local responders have been preparing for years.

“[We] have taken advantage of training that’s been offered by Burlington Northern in Colorado,” explains Hare. “We’ve sent probably six or seven guys down, and we plan on sending some more this year.”

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, based out of Texas, has a train yard in Pasco.

In the past year, BNSF trained 10,000 emergency responders nationwide on handling hazardous material accidents. About 900 of those were from Washington state.

“[BNSF] pays for everything,” says Hare. “It’s a great working relationship.”

BNSF also stages its own specialized equipment and responders across the country to deal with hazmat and crude oil incidents

Agencies like Pasco Fire can even request equipment for incidents unrelated to trains.

Hare cited times BNSF supplied tanker trains to help crews battle wildland fires in hard-to-reach places.

Another resource available is the mobile app AskRail. It supplies real-time data about individual rail cars and location information to first responders. It details which cars carry hazardous materials, and how to handle materials in the event of a spill.

In addition, BNSF has its own computer program called SECURETRAK, which supplies similar information to state and regional security agencies.

“And that’s all background stuff, behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t know about,” says Hare, adding that agencies from surrounding counties and cities work together to track this information.

Over the next 6-8 months, Hare says these agencies will compile data to map out daily measures of hazardous materials flowing through the area.

“We can’t prepare for every kind of emergency that comes down the road, but we can certainly start running some doomsday scenarios and start looking at how we would deal with those.”