Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 4, 2014

Contact:   Jared Margolis, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6404
Michael Lang, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, (503) 490-3979

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Northwest's Whales, Salmon, Shorebirds From
Unprecedented Spike in Oil Shipments by Rail and Barge

PORTLAND, Ore.— Amid a spike in oil shipments by rail and barge in the Pacific Northwest from near zero to millions of gallons a week, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Columbia Gorge today filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency for failing to update oil-spill response plans and ensure endangered species won’t be harmed by actions taken in response to oil spills.

The agencies have failed to update the “Northwest Area Contingency Plan,” aimed at dealing with spill emergencies, in response to the exponential jump in oil shipments along the region’s waterways. They need to examine how responding to a spill from this increased oil traffic would affect endangered species of salmon, whales, turtles and shorebirds.

“The oil-spill response plan doesn’t reflect the imminent hazard the Pacific Northwest faces from the drastically increased oil train and barge traffic we’re seeing today,” said Jared Margolis, a staff attorney at the Center. “The EPA and Coast Guard will play a critical role in minimizing the impacts of oil spills from trains and barges that are all but certain to occur. Oil trains pose an enormous danger we can’t overlook, and we need spill-response plans that acknowledge that risk and protect vulnerable wildlife.”

The amount of crude oil being shipped by rail through the Pacific Northwest along the Columbia River Gorge and Puget Sound has jumped from essentially nothing just four years ago, to dozens of oil trains per week, with millions of gallons of oil being moved through the area. Given this unprecedented recent increase in rail transport of oil, and the use of tank cars that are inadequate for crude oil shipments, there is a far greater risk for impacts to endangered species from an oil spill and related response actions than was the case just a few years ago.

“The Columbia River Gorge is a national treasure that is threatened by the dramatic upsurge in oil train traffic,” said Michael Lang, Friends’ conservation director. “The Gorge provides habitat for many sensitive species, including 13 stocks of imperiled salmon and steelhead that are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The EPA and Coast Guard have a duty to ensure that spill response plans protect our salmon from oil spills.”

“The dangers of oil spills are one of many reasons we need to move away from a fossil-fuel-driven economy,” said Margolis. “But if we’re going to ship millions of gallons of oil through the Pacific Northwest, we must at the very least have an adequate plan to ensure that agencies maximize their ability to mitigate impacts to wildlife and minimize further harm from their response efforts.” 

Oil transport, especially by rail, has dramatically increased in recent years. Since then a series of fiery oil-train derailments have occurred in the United States and Canada involving oil and petroleum products, resulting in hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil being spilled into waterways. The worst so far was a derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people, forced the evacuation of 2,000 people, and incinerated portions of a  popular tourist town. The most recent explosive derailment, on April 30, occurred in downtown Lynchburg, Va., where the James River was set afire after oil leaked out of punctured tank cars. These kinds of spills pose serious threats to people as well as wildlife, including endangered species.

The Columbia River Gorge and Puget Sound have become major conduits for crude shipped from the rapidly expanding oil fields of North Dakota to Pacific Northwest refineries.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrated that oil-spill responses can sometimes be as harmful to wildlife as the spills themselves; the use of toxic chemical dispersants and burning of spilled oil, in particular, proved to be lethal to numerous marine species. Today’s notice seeks to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated in the Pacific Northwest.

“While federal, state and local responses to oil spills often lessen the impacts of spills to wildlife, poorly planned or poorly implemented spill response activities can adversely affect wildlife and essential habitat,” the notice says. “The complex geography, hydrology and ecology of the Columbia River make it an especially difficult environment in which to administer an emergency spill response that avoids causing further harm to sensitive species."

The EPA and Coast Guard have approved actions, such as the use of toxic dispersants and burning of spilled oil, that might have adverse impacts on protected species and their critical habitat, depending on the manner in which they are implemented. However, the Coast Guard and EPA have never completed formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the potential impacts of oil-spill response actions on protected species, and have failed to properly reinitiate consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Coast Guard and EPA have a legal duty to ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the many endangered and threatened species that exist in the area, which can only be met through this consultation process.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 775,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge is a conservation organization with 5,200 members dedicated to protecting the scenic beauty and natural heritage of the Columbia River Gorge.

Go back