Railroad Congestion & Safety

Rail transport in Oregon may be significantly affected by new coal, oil, and LNG trains, creating bottlenecks and safety issues. Whether the Northwest’s bread and butter – the export of grain and wood products – will be sidelined by new money in oil and gas is an open question.

According to the Washington State Ecology Report, released Oct 1, 2014 (pdf), there has been an “unprecedented increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail from virtually none in 2011 to 714 million gallons in 2013″. That amount could reach 2.87 billion gallons by the end of 2014 or in 2015. The report also states there are nearly 3 million Washington residents who live on or near crude rail routes.

The Bakken Oil Boom is expected to increase train traffic along the Columbia River and lead to congestion and safety issues along the route, especially in cities like Vancouver, Longview, Portland, and the Seattle area.

Rail traffic in the Portland/Vancouver region is already among the most congested in the nation. Grain, commodities and containers currently keep BNSF and UP near capacity.

The increased use of trains to ship oil has caused significantly more delays on Amtrak passenger trains, reports the NY Times. The Empire Builder line that goes between Portland and Chicago is now late 70 percent of the time, typically by three to five hours, and revenues from that line have dropped 18 percent from last year, the newspaper reported.

Activists are providing leadership and awareness. The Climate Action Coalition, including activists from Columbia River Keepers, Portland Rising Tide, Portland 350.org, Vancouver Action Network, the Universalist Unitarian Church and others are demonstrating what needs to be done.

Apparently, the main concern of the Ports of Portland, Vancouver and Longview is not public safety — or even fiduciary responsibility. Never mind the environment. Consider the loss of the regional container business. The lack of train capacity. The closed door agreements. Costly and speculative coal and oil terminals. The danger to health and safety.

Currently, about 75 trains move through Vancouver, Washington daily. Most are traveling north, south and east on BNSF and Union Pacific mainlines. They’re carrying a variety of cargoes, including those considered hazardous such as gasoline, diesel, crude oil and various chemicals. As common carriers, railroads are required under federal law to transport these products. BNSF’s main line, East of Vancouver, serves an average of 35 to 40 trains a day.

The proposed oil and gas terminals could add 25-50 new unit trains — daily. Trains also have to return the empties, effectively doubling traffic.

Do the math — If 120 unit trains utilize the roadbed every 24 hours, that would require 5 trains each hour — night and day. Gridlock appears inevitable. Every Port can’t deliver their own pet projects because the rail capacity isn’t there. What impact that will have on grain and other commodities remains to be seen. A typical fall/winter/spring rock slide can close a BNSF line some 48 hours.

A unit train, where all 100-120 cars are shipped from the same origin to the same destination, can carry about 60,000-90,000 barrels of oil. Each car can carry 30,000 gallons of crude. Coal is measured in tonnage. The average size hopper or gondola on a unit train car can carry 100 to 110 tons of coal per car, or about 10,000 net tons per unit train.

Coal terminal proposals

  • Bellingham WA (Cherry Point/Peabody Coal) – 48 million tons/yr. About 9 full unit trains a day. That’s 18, mile-long trains daily (full + empty).
  • Longview WA (Amber Energy/Arch Coal) – 44 million tons/y. Eight unit trains would bring the coal into Longview daily. That’s 16 mile-long trains daily.
  • Port Westward OR (Amber Energy) – 9 million tons/yr, 4 trains daily to Boardman, then by barge to Port Westward (zero trains along the lower Columbia).
  • Total coal train traffic: 38 trips daily

Oil terminal proposals

Liquified Natural Gas proposals

If the above estimates are correct, the 3 coal terminals (38 trips daily), the 2 oil terminals (12 trips daily), and the Longview/Haven/Pembina propane terminals (2 trips daily), would total more than 50 trains/daily (25 full/25 empty). Most of these trains would travel down the Columbia River.

Amtrak service will suffer and decline. There’s no way Amtrak schedules could be met. Freight has priority.

Pudget Sound Shipments through The Gorge

Ten railroad oil terminals are planned for Washington state, plus one in Port Westward Oregon, bringing in crude oil from Bakken oil shale fields in the Dakotas. The rail terminals will together have a capacity of approximately 726,000 barrels a day, about the same as a large oceangoing tanker or the daily output of the Keystone XL pipeline, proposed for the mid-west. The Alaska pipeline is bringing about 295,000 barrels a day to Washington’s five refineries.

Washington’s refineries include two in Anacortes, two in Ferndale near Bellingham, and one in Tacoma. In addition, three projects are planned at Hoquiam. The Tesoro refinery in Anacortes (which had an accident in April 2010), has enough capacity to handle 50,000 barrels a day.

Dozens of oil and coal trains will go through Vancouver daily — whether or not any terminals are built in Vancouver WA, Longview WA or Port Westward OR, argues the Port of Vancouver.

So in addition to 25-50 NEW unit trains daily feeding terminals along the Columbia, there will be additional rail traffic coming through the Gorge and Vancouver that are expected to feed the refineries and terminals in Pudget Sound.

Barge Traffic

Barge traffic has priority over rail traffic, especially when vessels are headed down river. That’s because a tug pushing a barge must travel faster than the current to maintain control. Bridge operators on the BNSF line must open the Columbia bridge when barges are still miles away. Barges carry gas and oil upriver and grain downriver and return the empties. They (and sailboats) typically require a dozen or more BNSF Columbia bridge openings daily. [I live on the Columbia River, 1 mile from both the I-5 bridge and the BNSF RR bridge, see: HaydenIslandInfo].

With more than a hundred unit trains expected on a daily basis, the area seems headed for rail/river grid-lock. Are there enough hours in the day to handle the projected increase in rail traffic? It’s hard to see how the logistics could work. Even if there’s never an accident, rail traffic seems destined to be backed up to North Dakota routinely.

Trains on the North side of the Gorge (primarily BNSF), generally use the Columbia River Railroad Bridge (1 mile West of the I-5 vehicular bridge) and the Willamette Railroad Bridge (Willbridge) where trains can continue downriver, on the Oregon side, towards Port Westward.

At the Willamette Bridge (Willbridge), BNSF and Union Pacific can then join with the Portland & Western Railroad to serve Port Westward, near Clatskanie Oregon.

Union Pacific trains use the South side of the Columbia River, on the Oregon side. Those trains come out through Sullivan’s Gulch, beneath the Lloyd Center, and head towards the Steel bridge in downtown Portland.

This map shows that trains on the Oregon side of the Gorge MUST cross Naito Parkway if they are headed West, down river to Port Westward. Currently most Oregon-bound trains don’t cross the Steel bridge (and Naito Parkway). That’s because most trains currently turn North towards Rivergate terminals 4, 5 and 6, or South, towards California, before they cross the Steel bridge and block busy Naito Parkway.

More than a quarter of all U.S. grain exports move through nine grain terminals on the Columbia River and Puget Sound. But farmers grain shipments have been held up by a vast new movement of oil by rail, leading to millions of dollars in agricultural losses, reports the NY Times. The backlog is only going to get worse, farmers say.

The Northwest has nine grain shipping terminals, two on Puget Sound (at Seattle and Tacoma) and seven at ports along the Columbia River (one in Longview, two in Kalama, one in Vancouver and three in Portland).

Oil/Gas Train Safety

Trains hauling explosive crude oil are passing near schools and through towns in Oregon and Washington, past parks and playgrounds. The oil is transported under lighter state oversight than if it moved any other way.

The McClatchly news service reports that more oil was spilled from trains in 2013 than the total amount spilled since records started being kept.

Three railroads serving the Portland region refused to tell where they’re hauling crude oil locally. Up to 600,000 barrels of oil each month are shipped out of Port Westward near Clatskanie, Oregon. Savage and Tesoro Corp. plan to move as much as 380,000 barrels of crude through Vancouver, WA — every day. BNSF’s main line, East of Vancouver, serves an average of 35 to 40 trains a day.

Data was released in June 2014 show that showed 18 BNSF oil trains can roll through Clark County weekly. BNSF had previously only said it ran one to two Bakken oil trains daily in the Northwest. The information (pdf), highlights how prolific crude-by-rail has become. New oil (and coal) terminals in Vancouver and Longview will increase rail traffic significantly.

North Portland’s Rivergate Industrial District is Portland’s largest industrial park, but as the amount of exports such as grain and minerals going through the park climbs, so do traffic backups caused by trains, notes The Oregonian.

BNSF rail in Washington State

Amber Energy says not to worry — they will use barges, not trains from Boardman. Some people do not believe them. Amber Energy purposely misrepresented their Longview proposal. Critics wonder if Amber’s barge proposal for Port Westward could also be a railroad job.

Up the river, in Vancouver, Washington, Washington planners are developing a $200 million rail expansion plan to accommodate thousands of additional coal and oil cars.

Meanwhile, Longview’s Lewis and Clark Bridge is getting a rail improvement project of its own. Rail improvements would be funded by those who will benefit from it, say Port of Longview officials, including Millennium, the Port of Longview, Weyerhaeuser, Longview Fibre, local governments and other industries.

Washington Rail Overpass

Eight, mile-long trains a day would deliver coal to Longview. Including round trips, 16 coal trains a day could stop traffic at Third Avenue, Oregon Way, California Way and Industrial Way.

The Oregon Transportation Commission will vote on two projects totalling $4 million, which industry would match with $7.6 million, to rebuild and expand berths for ocean-going ships at the Port of St. Helens in Columbia City. The third proposes $3 million, matched by $2.3 million from other sources, to separate railroad tracks from vehicle and pedestrian traffic on A Street in Rainier, Ore.

Critics say they simply will ease the much-debated movement of coal and oil through Oregon.

The Lac-Mégantic derailment was a wake-up call. It was caused when an unattended 74-car train carrying Bakken crude ran away and derailed. It exploded in the center of town, killing 47 people. This amateur video shows a cataclysmic inferno.

A new report and website by Oil Change International provides a comprehensive overview of the current oil-by-rail industry. According to the report, “Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America”, approximately one million barrels of oil per day are moved on 135 trains of 100 cars or more each day in America.

Along the Willamette River, in the industrial section of Portland, Arc Logistics Partners receives, stores, and delivers heavy and light petroleum products via Panamax sized vessels, railroad and truck loading rack. The 39-acre site has 84 tanks with a total storage capacity of 1,466,000 barrels. The Alon Willbridge refinery, an asphalt topping refinery, has a crude oil throughput capacity of 12,000 barrels per day.

The Oregon State Fire Marshal has begun posting reports from railroad companies about their shipments through the state, at www.oregon.gov/osp/SFM/Pages/SERC/CrudeOilReports.aspx.

The Blast Zone mapping tool is available at Blast-Zone.org. Type in an address and you can see if it’s near the red zone, a band within a half-mile of the rail line that might be evacuated if there’s an oil train derailment.

Train Congestion

Rail traffic could soon increase dramatically with coal (to Longview and Pudget Sound), oil (to Port Westward OR and Vancouver WA) and LNG (to Longview and Portland). Many of the oil and coal trains will simply go down the Columbia and through Vancouver WA on the way to Pudget Sound. Soon, some 25 unit trains may be traveling to and from the terminals (50 trips daily).

An $8.9 million project to improve Rainier’s A Street, shared by oil trains would install curbs and improve crossings, allowing trains to speed up from 10 mph to 25 mph. But mprovements would allow the number of mile-long oil trains passing through Rainier to increase from 24 monthly to 38, helping expansion plans and profits for Global Partners oil export terminal.

A train delayed 911 assistance for a drowning man in Rainier, Oregon this May.

There was no debate, no public hearing. Mile-long trains carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota just showed up in communities including Rainier, Scappoose and St. Helens, reports The Oregonian.

“We didn’t know. No one knew,” Steven Massey, a Rainier city councilman, told the Oregonian.

Train Safety Modifications

The Lynchburg derailment (Instagram video), in April 2014, is only the latest in a string of catastrophic oil train explosions. The NTSB estimates that 69% of today’s tank car fleet has a high incidence of tank failure during accidents.

The Lynchburg derailment ignited oil on the surface of the river, sent flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air, forced evacuations of downtown businesses and homes.

Global Partners said they will switch from DOT 111 tanker cars to the newer CPC-1232 tank cars, starting June 1, a safety step lauded by Gov. John Kitzhaber. They add a thicker, more puncture-resistant shell around the cars, extra protective head shields at both ends of the tank car, and additional protection for the top fittings.

The Association of American Railroads is pushing for tougher safety standards for tank cars than the current, voluntary standards agreed to by industry in 2011, reports the Associated Press. Railroads, though, typically don’t own or lease tank cars and so wouldn’t have to buy new cars or retrofit existing ones.

The American Petroleum Institute, however, says Bakken crude is no different from other light, sweet crude oils and doesn’t need special containers. The oil and ethanol industries that own the cars want to stick with the voluntary standards, also known as “1232” tank cars.

But Siteline says the New “Safer” Tank Cars Were Involved in Lynchburg, VA, Oil Train Fire. Federal regulators are currently considering whether half- or full-height shields should be required on all cars.

Each oil car has the owner’s name in a code called a “reporting mark”.” Just go to Mark Search, type in the letter code (which typically ends in X), and the owner is revealed. Warren Buffet’s Union Tank Car tank cars are labeled UTLX; GATX Corp’s are GATX; Trinity Industries are TILX; The CIT Group are CBTX and CIGX, notes Sightline.

You can tell an oil train because each tank car will display a red diamond-shaped placard with numbers 1267 identifying the load as crude oil. Other Class 3 Flammable Liquids include Diesel fuel (1202), Gasoline (1203), Petroleum oil (1270), Kerosene (1223), Methanol (1230), Shale oil (1288) and Liquified Petroleum Gas (1075). Here are the four digit UN codes sorted by number.

DOT railroad placards are used for transporting hazardous materials. Shippers are required to use nine hazard classes as a guide to properly classify their hazardous materials.

The railroads don’t want residents to know what hazardous materials pass though their community. But it is easy to point a video camera at a railroad and archive the streaming output 24/7 on Sensr.net for $10/month. Anyone could view the archive and count the trains. It’s not rocket science.

Automatic classification and counting of rail cars might be accomplished by running the camera through Elemental Technologies. Mobile apps like PhotoTime and FotoTiger for Facebook can automatically tag images today.

Phones and tablets equipped with Movidius visual processing chips will probably enable most anyone to parse out text and graphics printed on rail cars (and probably read boat registration numbers). My I-5 bridge webcam has a straight shot across the river at all the rail traffic headed to Vancouver.

According to Port of Vancouver’s CEO, about 75 trains currently move through Vancouver daily.

The new terminals for oil, coal and gas would appear to raise train traffic through Vancouver to around 125 trains a day.

Barry Cain, CEO of Gramor Development, says oil trains would put his planned Columbia Waterfront Development at risk.

Cain estimated the site along the north bank of the Columbia River could ultimately generate $844 million per year in economic activity. Columbia Waterfront proponents are in negotiations with restaurants, and could have plans for the first residential and office construction at the site soon, he said.

The rail line through the Columbia River Gorge doesn’t have to go over the mountains making it the much preferred route, explained BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace.

Tesoro and Savage hope to build the Pacific Northwest’s largest crude-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington, capable of unloading four trains and 360,000 barrels of oil daily. A DOT-111 tank car holds about 28,000 gallons, with 100 cars holding about 2,800,000 gallons which is equal to about 80,000 barrels of oil.

The Port of Vancouver says it would receive $45 million over ten years for the lease of land for the oil port. But critics say Vancouver’s lucrative $1.2 billion waterfront development could be killed in the process, with residential concern over safety and congestion.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is demanding the oil industry eliminate older, unsafe tanker cars. At a Senate hearing on railroad safety in March, Cantwell pressed industry executives on when they will pull “DOT 111” cars off the rails in favor of newer, sturdier models.

Oil industry executives told Cantwell they hope to phase out 60 percent of the older cars by 2015 but couldn’t say when they’d all be off the rails.

Rainier, Oregon Mayor Jerry Cole said he trusts Global Parners, in Port Westard to operate safely. About a dozen trains with about 100 cars each currently come through downtown Rainier per month, 22 fewer than Global is allowed by its permit.

But the legality of some of those shipments remains under dispute, reports the Oregonian. Oregon state regulators said Global has violated its permits by moving 297 million gallons of oil to Port Westward between December 2012 and November 2013 when its permit allowed 50 million gallons.

The terminal’s new proposed air pollution permit would allow it to bring in 50 trains per month. That’s twice the number of trains it’s allowed to handle today. It can accept 24 trains a month and can increase that to 38 monthly trains if improvements are made to tracks running through downtown Rainier. Returning empties doubles the rail traffic.

Coal Train Congestion

BNSF is the largest transporter of low-sulfur coal in the world while Union Pacific in Oregon moves containers, primarily. Coal accounts for more than a quarter of BNSF’s revenues and 90 percent of the coal it hauls is from the Powder River Basin.

The Longview coal export facility backed by Millennium plans to haul at least 45 million tons of coal per year from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to Longview, Washington. It would use Burlington Northern’s rail lines on the Washington side of the Columbia.


KING-5 covers The great train debate surrounding the expected increase in rail traffic to and from coal facilities at Cherry Point and Longview.

BNSF rail in Washington State

The city of The Dallas listened to a presentation by Sightline on coal export along the Columbia River. Critics like Sightline say trains serving Cherry Point WA would more than double the existing rail traffic. That’s before the region sees any other freight expansions, including the huge new oil export terminal planned for Vancouver, Washington and before the region gets new passenger rail service.

Train trips per day, from Sightline Presentation

Amber Energy, which has a coal export proposal for Port Westward, said they’ll bring coal trains to Boardman then stop – transfering coal to barges to Port Westard. But some are skeptical that Amber Energy is telling the whole truth – they did misrepresent the true size of their proposed Longview facility by a factor of ten. Consequently, Amber’s barge proposal may be a similar misrepresentation, say critics.

Rainer, Oregon[30] has a single P&W track that cuts through the downtown and separates homes and businesses from the rest of the city. The tracks cross multiple streets, and speed limits force trains to creep through town. The P&W rail line goes through other communities along the Oregon side, from Portland to Clatskanie, Oregon, where Port Westward is located.

Portland Switchyards

Rail transport in Oregon includes Union Pacific and BNSF, the first and second largest freight railroads in North America. Oregon rail yards include Hermiston’s Hinkle Yard (UP), and Portland’s Albina Yard (UP), Brooklyn Yard (UP), Willbridge Yard (BNSF), Lake Yard (BNSF/UP/PTRR), and Terminal 6/East St. John (BNSF).

According to a North Portland Rail Analysis by the City of Portland:

“To ensure both freight and passenger rail growth in the future, and to provide for high speed passenger rail growth, the region may need to explore segregated freight and passenger lines, with new right of way and tracks dedicated to high-speed passenger rail, as is being explored on the route between Portland and Eugene. This could lead to requiring a new bridge across the Columbia River dedicated to high-speed passenger rail.”

Oil Train Congestion

At the Columbia Pacific Biorefinery at Port Westward (now an oil transfer terminal), trains must slow to 10 mph, so a 1.2 mile long oil train rolling through Rainier, Oregon using the Portland & Western Railroad on it’s way to the Global Partners oil export facility near Clatskanie, would take 7-8 minutes (without slow downs or stops) for each train. Not to mention the current daily log trains to Teevin Brothers and other business.

Longview Coal Plan

The 50-mile Portland & Western Railroad line[31] would have to undergo significant upgrades before any major increase in rail traffic happens, say Oregon Department of Transportation officials.

In 1997, the line between Willbridge (the Willamette River Bridge) and Tongue Point was sold to the Portland & Western, a short line company. The last train on the temporary Lewis and Clark Explorer line, between Portland and Astoria, ran in October 2005. The PNWR was acquired by Genesee & Wyoming in 1995.

Each coal train would be 125 cars long, pulled by three or four locomotives[32]. A 125-car train is approximate 1.34 miles long.

Northwest Rail Routes from Sierra Club Presentation

Ambre Energy has an alternative coal export terminal planned for Oregon. It would bring in coal by train to the Port of Morrow[34], then barge the coal down river to Port Westward. Presumably, if Ambre Energy actually sticks to their plan of barging coal to Port Westward, that would cause less railroad congestion on the Oregon side. But Port Westward is already getting crowded.

Oil Train Safety

An accident at Port Westward in January, 2014 was worrying. Oregon’s Port Westward, which is run by the Port of Saint Helens, had a near spill of Bakken crude at the Port when a giant diesel engine fell off a truck and hit an oil tanker. Luckily, the fully loaded railroad crude oil tanker was not ruptured and no one was killed or injured. PGE is building a new natural gas-fired power plant near the Global Partner’s current oil export facility.


The tankers hold 28,000 gallons of oil when fully loaded. The engine measures 13 feet wide, 50 feet in length and 20 feet tall and can generate 25,000 horsepower.

PGE’s 220-megawatt power plant is expected to go into operation in 2015 and will join two existing natural-gas-fired PGE power plants at Port Westward. Port Westward Unit 2 uses reciprocating engine gensets supplied by Wärtsilä.

Massachusetts-based Global Partners runs the adjoining Port Westward oil export facility. It transports crude oil via rail to Port Westward from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, then exports it to refineries in the Puget Sound and San Francisco areas.

Shipment of crude oil by rail has become a growing concern. Three rail disasters in the past six months have raised concerns about whether older oil tankers need to be made stronger. Oil tanker explosions include one last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.

Oil tankers now carry more than 10 percent of U.S. oil, up 40-fold in five years, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Most of the nation’s 94,000 rail tankers carrying oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids don’t meet puncture-resistance and other standards that apply to new tank cars. Industry officials say it could take a decade and cost billions to retrofit up to 65,000 older tankers that carry flammable liquids.

But DOT-111 oil tank cars, like those in the Quebec Disaster that killed 47 people, are seen as flawed, say the National Transportation Safety Board.


The USDOT has determined that: “Recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil… Based on preliminary inspections conducted after recent rail derailments in North Dakota, Alabama and Lac-Megantic, Quebec, involving Bakken crude oil [we mandate crude producers and shippers to] sufficiently degasify hazardous materials prior to and during transportation.

A Web-based petition last fall by the progressive group CREDO Action collected 58,000 supporters of banning the “dangerous DOT-111 tanker cars in our communities.”

The Port of Portland says oil trains must become safer before Portland terminals are built, reports The Oregonian. The Port of Portland won’t allow any oil train projects to be built until numerous safety concerns are addressed.

But Todd Coleman, CEO, Port of Vancouver USA says oil trains are already traveling through our community and will continue to do so, regardless of whether or not Tesoro-Savage’s proposed oil terminal is approved. What’s in question is whether or not any of those trains stop at the Port of Vancouver.

Critics say Coleman is more concerned about the Port’s $45 million contract over ten years than the $1.2 billion Vancouver waterfront project (or safety).

According to Coleman, about 75 trains move through Vancouver daily. Of those, an average of 1.5 unit trains enters the port.

Tesoro and Savage hope to build the Pacific Northwest’s largest crude-by-rail terminal, capable of unloading four trains and 360,000 barrels of oil daily. A DOT-111 tank car holds about 28,000 gallons, with 100 cars holding about 2,800,000 gallons which is equal to about 80,000 barrels of oil.

Four unit trains (80,000 barrels per train) would supply the 360,000 barrels of oil daily to the Vancouver terminal.

BNSF’s plan for increased rail safety, announced last month, is to purchase up to 5,000 new crude oil tank cars with additional safety features that exceed industry standards.

But a member of the National Transportation Safety Board told lawmakers in Feb, 2014 that rail tank cars being used to ship crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region are an “unacceptable public risk,” and even cars voluntarily upgraded by the industry may not be sufficient.

The NTSB has long urged replacement of the tank cars, but federal efforts to write tougher regulations for new tank cars have dragged on for two years.

Columbia River Congestion

The Columbia River is getting crowded, too. Billions of dollars of port investments will send at least 850 to 1,000 additional ships sailing up the lower Columbia River in the next four or five years, and the number could rise as high 1,500, reports Longview’s Daily News. That’s about double the annual number of oceangoing ships calling on lower river ports today.

The (relatively) small Port Westward coal terminal would ship about 8-millon tons/year out by barge, or about 125 vessels a year. The nearby Global Partners Port Westward terminal would ship 115 crude oil tankers a year. Haven Energy’s liquid propane and butane terminal at the Port of Longview would add one ship a month to the mix.

Significantly, the proposed, 44-million ton coal terminal in West Longview would send two loaded freighters out each day while Vancouver’s proposed crude oil terminal would send another 350 oil tankers into the river annually, reports Longview’s Daily News.

If (when) an oil train derails along the Columbia, multiple jurisdictions will be called to action, including Fire Departments, County Sheriff offices, and State Police from Oregon and Washington, as well the Region 10 Regional Response Team, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Oregon Office of Emergency Management/Homeland Security.

They will all need to coordinate the response and communicate over narrowband radios. Portland is also the only major West Coast port that doesn’t have a state of the art vessel monitoring system equipped with radar, visible light and infrared tracking ALL ships from Astoria to Portland.

Possible Infrastructure and Employment Benefits

Greenbrier and Vigor Industrial were both asked to bid on $70 million of barge construction for the Morrow Pacific project. Tidewater Barge Lines, a Vancouver, Wash.-based barge and tugboat operator is hoping to land a lucrative contract serving Ambre Energy’s proposed $250 million Morrow Pacific coal export project. “It’s the biggest (potential) project we’ve looked at in our history,” said Dennis McVicker, CEO of 80-year-old Tidewater, which would use its tugs to guide coal-filled barges back and forth between the two ports, reports Sustainable Oregon Business. “If we’re selected to do this work, we’re going to be building four or five new boats at maybe $10 million to $11 million per boat.”

“China is building coal-fired electric power plants like crazy,” says Joseph Cannon, Millennium’s chief executive. “They have a near-insatiable appetite for electricity over there. So they’re going to burn coal. This coal is vastly cleaner than the coal that’s being burned in China. Not just less mercury, but less sulphur and less nitrogen. That’s not a greenhouse gas, of course, but this will make it better for the people of China.”

Coal Plant Build Rate

Seattle-based environmental advocacy group The Sightline Institute, notes how the Port of Portland entered into a 25-year lease with a group called Pacific Coal in the 1980s to export coal to Asia. But after $25 million invested, the project was scuttled in 1983 after demand from Asia proved not to be so robust.

“The Port of Portland tried a coal export terminal in the early 1980s and it collapsed,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Hood River environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “The rhetoric was exactly the same as we see today. The market shifted and they never shipped a single ounce of product.”

But officials at the Port of Portland aren’t as willing to portray the 1980s coal experiment as a failure, reports Erik Siemers in Sustainable Business Oregon.

Port of Portland Terminal 4

The work on that 1980s coal terminal paved the way to what is today a thriving operation at the Port of Portland’s Terminal Four, exporting Soda ash from Kinder-Morgan berth 411 Google Map. In 2009, Kinder-Morgan handled approx 2 million tons of Soda Ash.

Port of Portland Potash Terminal 5

The Port of Portland’s Terminal Five, uses the rail infrastructure to export potash, brought in from Canada. Potash is a bulk commodity used in fertilizers. See: Sam Churchill’s tour of Terminal 5

Port of Vancouver

Neither the Port of Portland nor the Port of Vancouver (above) has expressed much enthusiasm for coal, but oil is a different matter. The Port of Vancouver celebrated 100 years in April, 2012. It has 2,127 acres that includes 800 acres of industrial facilities, more than 500 acres of land for future development and more than 100 acres of shovel-ready land.

There’s a limited amount of capacity that can get through the Columbia locks in one day. If residents choose coal, then other commodities might be choked off. If the Keystone pipeline gets built, there conceivably might also be a slowdown in Westcoast rail shipments, just as the Columbia River oil terminals are completed.

Another choke point is the BNSF Interstate Railroad Bridge, just West of the I-5 vehicular bridge. Delaying trains for barge traffic headed to Port Westward is not in the game plan for railroads. Amtrak’s on-time recording is already the slowest in the nation. Train delays in Portland-Vancouver are already greater than Chicago, one of the nation’s most congested, according to Washington’s 2009 rail plan.

Rail congestion and rail safety are big issues — and seem destined to become bigger.

For more background on the Columbia River Gorge, check out my new GorgeVR.org site, an immersive virtual tour through the Columbia River Gorge.