“We’re sorry for your inconvenience.” Southern Pacific Railroad spokesperson response to oil train derailment, explosion in Mosier, Oregon
It has been one week since 14 oil cars derailed in the Columbia River Gorge, two weeks since high lead levels were discovered in Portland School drinking water, and at least one month since the US Forest Service somehow determined elevated amounts of chromium, arsenic, and cadmium through testing of moss in Portland neighborhoods.
Environmental and human safety regulations enforced by federal, state, and local jurisdictions cover Pacific Northwest natural resources, and it is a natural assumption that we citizens in progressive Oregon and Washington are protected by strong laws. We are no longer feeling so secure.
As a former regulator representing the interests of the least protected members of environment law, fish and wildlife, I wrote permits for projects with potential to impact salmon such as culvert placement, new roads and home building. However, permit enforcement was spotty at best. Regulations without enforcement invite environmental lawlessness.
The alternatives to lax environmental rules or enforcement lack are focusing on the court system, yet at the local level, District Attorneys typically do not prioritize environmental cases. Citizen organizations can assist regulators; Project Light Hawk monitors the natural world from the air, and groups like Friends of Mount Adams send folks into the wilderness to ensure that livestock are staying on the right side of the fence. Columbia Riverkeeper volunteers constantly measure water quality.
While current laws or proper oversight did not prevent the first oil train derailment in the Columbia Gorge, we have this moment to collectively come together to strengthen laws, our communities along the rail lines, and our resolve.