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Clues Offered To How Fossil Fuel Disasters Might Happen

A train disaster can stem from something as small as a leak — chlorine gas can be fatal when inhaled — or as massive as an ethanol or crude-oil fed fire. An environmental disaster can stem from something as simple as a train derailment or as complex as the massive amounts of fossil fuels and hazardous materials that are turning Oregon into an energy-industry gateway.

Want to know more about the fossil fules and chemicals coming through Oregon? Small, diamond-shaped placards on all four sides of a tank car with a four-digit United Nations (UN) number will tell you exactly what that train is carrying. The number for crude oil, which might include toxic tar sands crude from Canada or fracked oil from the Bakken oil field of North Dakota, is 1267. Liquefied chlorine gas, which can spread for miles if it leaks, is 1017. Hydrochloric acid is 1789, and it can cause severe injury, burns or death. These are a few of the chemicals that Eugene Weekly and PictureEugene recently documented (cover story, 8/15) on railcars coming through downtown Eugene. 

Conservationists say that the disaster is already here. A Sightline Institute report says if all the region’s proposed oil projects “were built and operated at capacity, they would move nearly 805,000 barrels of crude oil per day on the Northwest’s rail system.” In contrast, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline through the nation’s center would carry just a bit more — 830,000 barrels of oil per day.

Add the increase in oil trains through Oregon and Washington to the increase in coal trains that’s expected if coal export terminals are built in Bellingham and Longview, Wash., in addition to Canadian coal terminals. Then add studies from the railway industry that show coal dust makes the rail tracks unstable, and the Pacific Northwest starts looking like a dangerous fossil fuel gateway.

Oregon has never been known for coal mining or oil and gas extraction, but the state does have at least two small coalfields, near Coos Bay and in northern Wallowa and Union counties. It also has natural gas wells in Coos County’s coal beds, which were fracked by Halliburton in 2006 and could be fracked again. NW Natural has gas wells and storage in Mist, Ore., 60 miles northwest of Portland. 

The looming specter of liquefied natural gas (LNG, UN number 1972) has not disappeared from Oregon. While the Port of Coos Bay didn’t wind up becoming a coal export terminal this time around, and spokesperson Elise Hamner says it doesn’t export oil, the port is still pursuing an LNG export terminal, which would be accompanied by a natural gas pipeline through Oregon’s public lands and under pristine rivers. The gas itself is nonodorized and flammable, and attorney Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center points out, “Putting a flammable pipeline through Southern Oregon, which is on fire right now, is seriously screwed up.”

UN numbers for hazardous materials can be looked up online through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Emergency Response Guidebook at wkly.ws/1jb.