Concern About Oil Spills In Inland Northwest Rises With Rail Traffic

Sep 24, 2014

The coast has generally been considered the area of the Northwest most at risk for a catastrophic oil spill. But the rise in oil moving through the region by rail has raised the stakes for some inland areas.

File photo of an oil train
Credit U.S. Department of Transportation

Three counties in the northern tip of Idaho are now creating their own strategy for containing a spill.

Trains carry crude oil from North Dakota across the Idaho Panhandle at least twice a day. They run along lakes and rivers, and sometimes cross right over the water.

That’s made local emergency response managers in Boundary, Bonner and Kootenai counties even more nervous about what would happen if a train derailed.

Sandy Von Behren, emergency manager in Kootenai County, said they’re developing a detailed geographic response plan like the ones the Puget Sound area and the Columbia River Basin have had for years. They want to protect places like the Kootenai River and Lake Pend Oreille.

“If the release is into a waterway and there’s no access we would be able to look at the maps and look at what’s the next place we can go to access that,” Von Behren said. “And also where are the most available resources that are quick and close by.”

The plan would also consider spills that come from boats and highway traffic, as well as leaks in underground oil pipelines.

In Washington state, the Department of Ecology is also developing detailed oil spill response plans in areas that haven’t had them before, including Moses Lake and the Duwamish River.

The Northwest’s region-wide strategy for dealing with oil spills has come under fire from conservation groups. This month, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Center for Biological Diversity notified the EPA and the Coast Guard they intend to file a lawsuit if the federal agencies don’t make changes. The groups say disaster planning hasn’t kept pace with the number of tanker cars moving through the Northwest.