SALEM — Oregon will have four new railroad inspectors by January to check tracks, hazardous materials shipments and railroad companies’ compliance with other federal regulations.
The new hires will bring the total number of state railway inspectors to 11. There are also nine Federal Railroad Administration inspectors in Oregon.
The Oregon Department of Transportation hired the compliance specialists in response to concerns about increased crude-by-rail shipments through Oregon and several oil train derailments and explosions elsewhere in the United States and Canada.
Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said the addition of new inspectors is a positive development. Friends of the Columbia Gorge has raised concerns about increased oil-by-rail shipments through the gorge and elsewhere in Oregon.
“We celebrate having more inspectors,” Lang said. “It won’t solve the problem obviously, but it’s important to have inspectors.”
Oregon’s rail inspection program is voluntary. The Federal Railroad Administration has inspectors in Oregon and other states, and states can also sign agreements with the federal agency so that local inspectors can also enforce federal railroad laws.
The new inspectors are going through extensive classroom and field training and must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration before they can conduct inspections alone, according to ODOT. John Johnson, manager of rail safety for ODOT, said the agency started hiring the additional inspectors in May.
“We plan to have them certified by the first of the year,” Johnson said.
Former Gov. John Kitzhaber requested the additional inspectors last year, and Johnson said ODOT finally hired them after completing a process to transfer vacant jobs from other agencies to the transportation department.
The new inspectors will begin work at a time when thousands of carloads of oil still enter the state each year, although the shipments appear to have leveled off as oil prices dropped.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and Union Pacific trains carried 24,199 carloads of crude oil, natural gas and natural gasoline on Oregon rail lines in 2014, a 340 percent increase from 5,491 carloads in 2012, according to data from ODOT. Crude oil accounts for the majority of that figure and although ODOT does not yet have data for 2015, convention wisdom is that oil shipments through Oregon declined this year, according to agency spokeswoman Shelley Snow.
A different metric, reports that railways filed with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, showed the short line Portland and Western Railroad expected to move fewer large shipments of oil this year from North Dakota’s Bakken formation through Multnomah and Columbia counties to the Port Westward export terminal near Clatskanie.
In June 2014, the railroad told the state it expected three trains per week with at least 1 million gallons of North Dakota crude, the equivalent of approximately 35 tank cars, to move through the counties. By February, the railroad lowered the weekly estimate to a range of zero to three trains per week.
The reports provide only a partial picture of oil shipments, because the U.S. Department of Transportation only requires the reports for Bakken oil-by-rail shipments 1 million gallons or larger and railways only file the reports when the volume increases or decreases 25 percent from the previous report.
Lang said he expects the amount of oil shipped on trains through the Columbia River gorge and entire Northwest region will only increase in the future. He cited a report by the Sightline Institute that there are 15 existing or planned export terminals and refineries in Oregon and Washington, plus the potential for a new oil terminal in Longview, Washington.
“Honestly, in the foreseeable future, we don’t see significant decreases in the consumption of oil,” Lang said.
ODOT wanted inspectors who have prior experience working with trains, and one inspector is a former railroad general manager. Another is a former assistant general manager of a railroad, the third has 31 years of experience enforcing federal track regulations at a transit agency, and the fourth inspector was previously a city fire marshal.
“It’s a high-level position, so we expect a lot of background experience before we allow them out in the field,” Johnson said.
It can take more than a year for railroad inspectors to obtain federal certification. The new hires’ previous experience with trains “aided us in reducing the time it takes to get them through the on the job training schedule,” Johnson said. The Federal Railroad Administration paid for the new state inspectors to attend out-of-state classes, and the inspectors have shadowed both state and federal inspectors in the field.
The state paid for the new hazardous materials inspector to travel to North Dakota to observe how oil shipments originate in the state. Johnson said the goal of the trip was for the inspector to “have an idea what concerns we might be looking at over in this state.”
Annual salaries for rail inspectors range from nearly $53,000 to approximately $78,000, according to ODOT.
“We don’t rush them into getting their certifications,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure they’re fully compliant and able to do the job so we know we have safe railroads in Oregon.”