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North Idaho oil train risks to be assessed under grant

North Idaho governments will use a $36,000 federal grant to update their emergency preparedness plans to address the growing number of oil trains rumbling through their communities.

On average, two to three loaded oil trains pass through Spokane daily. But before they hit the Inland Northwest’s largest city, the trains travel along the Kootenai River, pass through downtown Bonners Ferry, cut through Sandpoint, cross Lake Pend Oreille and follow U.S. Highway 95 before heading west into Washington.

“Cargo being transported through our counties is always changing,” said Bob Howard, Bonner County’s emergency management director.

Public buildings, fish hatcheries, water intakes for cities and other critical community resources are on the oil train’s route. The grant will help the rural communities identify what’s at risk in the event of an oil train derailment or release of other hazardous materials, and outline a plan of action.

Prior planning is the key to an effective response, Howard said. When a barge sunk on the Pend Oreille River last summer, gas leaking from the vessel was quickly contained. Emergency responders were working from a plan that identified where the containment booms and absorbent pads were located, he said.

Thousands of shipments of hazardous materials pass through North Idaho each year — by truck, by train and by pipeline. Releases from those shipments are extremely rare, Howard noted.

In related news, Study: more to do as oil trains pose new risks.

But a string of fiery oil train derailments in North America over the past 18 months has heightened community awareness of rail shipments of the volatile crude from the Bakken oil fields of Eastern Montana and North Dakota. According to a recent Washington state report, the volume of oil transported by rail could triple within the next five years. The unit trains, with as many as 120 cars each, are headed for ports and refineries on the Washington coast.

Kootenai, Bonner and Boundary counties have hired a consultant to update their emergency response plans. The planning builds on earlier work addressing other types of hazardous materials shipments through North Idaho and identifying critical watersheds.

“If the real one occurs, we’re more prepared to protect the citizens and the environment,” Howard said.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the three railroads operating in North Idaho — BNSF Railway, Montana Rail Link and Union Pacific — are also involved in the effort.

The Kootenai Tribe is working to restore native sturgeon and burbot fisheries in the Kootenai River, which is part of the tribe’s ancestral homeland, said Kevin Greenleaf, the tribe’s environmental director. A new tribal hatchery opened last fall across the river from the oil train route, and another hatchery is downstream from the railroad tracks.

“We’re working with other partners to protect the ecosystem health,” Greenleaf said.

BNSF, which ships most of the region’s oil by rail, is updating its own emergency response plan for North Idaho, said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman. Next year, the railroad will locate trailers with containment booms, absorbent pads and skimmers in both Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry.

Railroad officials have also conducted spill response training exercises with North Idaho emergency responders over the past year, and that work will continue, Melonas said.

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