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Congressman Peter DeFazio

Representing the 4th District of OREGON

GAO Report Finds Emergency Responders May Lack Crucial Training and Information in Accidents Involving Trains Carrying Hazardous Materials

Nov 17, 2016
Press Release
DeFazio urges federal agencies to track whether information on hazardous shipments is being shared with first responders

Today, Ranking Member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) responded to an investigation from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that found the federal government does not track whether emergency responders are given critical information about shipments of hazardous materials transported by rail. This information helps responders prepare for and act during accidents and incidents involving the transportation of hazardous materials including crude oil, ethanol and other toxic products. In addition, the report found that emergency responders need additional training to adequately plan and prepare for emergency response and mitigation.

The report was requested by DeFazio in March 2015. 

“Every day, thousands of trains carrying highly hazardous, toxic materials crisscross the country, through densely populated urban cities to sparsely populated, but environmentally sensitive rural areas. We must ensure that these communities and emergency responders are prepared if an accident occurs. The report released by the GAO found that the federal government does not know whether or not local officials and emergency responders are receiving critical information about hazardous materials carried on the trains passing through their communities, even when that information has been provided by a railroad to the state. It also found that our first responders need additional training that will help them prepare for and respond to accidents involving toxic materials. This is unacceptable—the Department of Transportation and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration must guarantee that this critical information is shared with local officials and emergency planners, and they must ensure the necessary training is provided to emergency responders jeopardizing their lives to protect public safety,” said DeFazio.

The report included several key findings:

  • Training is a key aspect of planning and preparing for emergency response and mitigation. The GAO found that local emergency planners from most counties (20 of 22 surveyed) reported that more than 60 percent of emergency responders are trained at the general awareness level, which solely enables first responders to recognize that they are dealing with a hazardous materials incident and call for trained response personnel. Emergency responders should, at a minimum, be provided with operations level training so they are best prepared to respond to incidents involving hazardous material.
  • Obstacles prevent emergency responders from participating in critical training. Local emergency planners reported that various barriers prevent their emergency responders’ participation in training activities that would help prepare them to respond to rail accidents involving hazardous materials. The GAO found that barriers include the ability of fire departments to backfill fire fighters that are receiving training, a lack of dedicated time for training, the need to take unpaid time off of work for training, and the need to take time off from regular duties “may discourage participation in training.”
  • Emergency responders need information to prepare for incidents. While the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the railroads have taken some actions to help support emergency response efforts and preparation, the federal government does not track information sharing between state and local emergency planners. While a 2014 DOT Emergency Order required railroads to share this information with State Emergency Response Commissions, PHMSA and DOT have no process to determine whether information about hazardous shipments is actually shared with emergency planners. The GAO recommends that DOT develop a process to collect data about the distribution of hazardous materials shipping information with local emergency planners. DOT agreed with the recommendation.

“In Mosier, Oregon, 16 rail cars from a 96-car Union Pacific crude oil train derailed, spilling 47,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil across the street from a school building and into the Columbia River. The federal government must help communities that are in the dark about what hazardous materials are traveling through them and we must give emergency responders the training they need to prepare and respond to accidents that will inevitably occur. I will continue to push for stronger rules and oversight, as well as increased funding for training grants,” said DeFazio.

DeFazio spearheaded provisions in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 (FAST Act) that require railroads to share information on a monthly basis about high-hazard trains transporting flammable liquids, such as crude oil and ethanol, with state and tribal emergency response commissions and local responders. The FAST Act included language to direct the DOT to require railroads to provide, through the applicable fusion center, emergency responders with real-time access to information about a train’s hazardous materials shipments in the case of a train accident. The FAST Act also reauthorized a grant program to provide funding to States to enable to them to provide hazardous materials training to fire fighters, and urged the DOT to move forward on a final rule to require railroads to develop and implement oil spill response plans.

In July, DeFazio introduced the bipartisan Community Protection and Preparedness Act (H.R. 5786), legislation that creates a new trust fund to help communities prepare for accidents involving rail cars transporting flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol. The legislation was co-sponsored by Representatives Greg Walden (R-OR) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).