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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sue Lani Madsen: Don’t let emotions over train derailment impede good decision-making about the movement of cargo

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen,columnist

One of the risks of shipping anything anywhere is the risk of an accident, and there was a big one June 3 in the Columbia Gorge when a freight train carrying crude oil derailed. We will be transporting oil for many generations and we have to face the risks. Even if or when we stop using it for fuel, it has too many other critical uses in modern society.

The title of a 2014 article in Forbes magazine sums up the challenge: “Pick Your Poison for Crude – Pipeline, Rail, Truck or Boat.” Each method has risks; which is worse depends on how you define “worse.” Is it type of impact, projected frequency, cost of recovery?

Pipelines are safest for human health and safety, and accidents are infrequent but can be harder on the environment when they happen because of the potential for a larger spill. Rail transport is safer for the environment but has more opportunity to present a hazard to humans because of the location of rail lines. Trucks are safer to the environment than rail mostly because they carry smaller loads, but are at greater risk of uncontrollable human error in mixed traffic. Which is worse?

Making policy decisions based on the latest headline-grabbing accident is like announcing you’re never going in the water again because you just saw “Jaws.” Decisions about balancing risk have to be made on nonemotional grounds.

The Spokane City Council reacted to the recent accident by passing a nonbinding resolution requesting no oil shipments through Mosier, Oregon, until all the derailed cars have been removed. The resolution cited objections to the risk of resuming rail traffic from Mosier’s mayor, acting mayor and City Council president.

Rail safety is not a theoretical exercise for me. I’ve lived in the potential hot zone of active freight lines since 1978, and have responded as a volunteer firefighter to trains in trouble. A national news service quoted the Mosier fire chief as objecting to the resumption of rail traffic, so I called to ask the basis of his objections for lessons to apply in our fire department.

Chief Jim Appleton said resuming normal traffic had the unanimous support of the unified command team, including him, although he understood the “bad optics” related to the timing. The Union Pacific did not push it through.

He described the response as absolutely by the book, and the people who write the textbooks were there vetting the work being done in the field. “We are in the best hands, safest place on the planet,” Appleton said.

The right thing to do was to open the tracks; the emotional argument was to keep them closed.

Later Appleton described himself as “militantly opposed to the oil trains,” but the larger policy debate was not relevant to making decisions about this specific situation.

Shutting down a main rail line has collateral impacts in the same way shutting down a major arterial in a city impacts neighborhood streets. Traffic demand continues. A decision to reroute creates new risks to assess. Twenty-seven risks, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

According to FRA spokesmen, they require specific steps by railroads to evaluate risk and assure crude oil and other hazardous materials are transported along the safest available route. After an accident, the FRA steps in if there is any sign of a systemic problem. In the case of the Oregon derailment, there was no such sign. Track repairs were made and inspected, and FRA allowed traffic to resume under severe speed restrictions while cleanup continued. The decision was not based on emotion or economics, but on function and safety.

Oil trains are not the worst nightmare scenario facing responding agencies along rail and highway routes. Risk can be mitigated but not eliminated as long as people make mistakes and the laws of physics apply. We have to weigh risks versus benefits, work through disagreements in making those judgment calls, and decide which risks to accept. Then we prepare for what can and will go wrong.

When we let ourselves be distracted by the latest drama, we lose sight of the larger picture. Freight has to move for society to function.

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at rulingpen@ or on Twitter: @SueLaniMadsen.