Home Emergency Management News Corporate Responsibility: Oregon Oil Train Derailment

Corporate Responsibility: Oregon Oil Train Derailment

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Oil train derailment in Mosier, OR

The train was carrying oil. Oil is an inherently hazardous substance. It has arguably enabled development of the great civilization that we currently enjoy, but also arguably has outlived its usefulness -- and threatened the quality of our future as well.

Those issues have been, and will continue to be, discussed in this forum at length. Oil development, transport, and burning create issues for emergency and disaster managers that are either daily concerns or that we understand will become daily concerns in the near future.

This article is not about that. This article is about corporate responsibility.

One of our political perspectives has long advocated that corporations are better stewards of the safety of our citizens than are government agencies. When that political perspective holds sway, the result is that corporations are considered "people," corporate donations to political parties is considered "free speech," corporations are largely deregulated to avoid government interference, and corporations are given the fast track to writing legislation, including environmental and finance legislation.

That might all be fine if corporations actually took their responsibility for social protection seriously. That has not proven to be the case. Examples are legion, but let's examine just one here: the train derailment in Oregon that set fires, damaged a town's water system, and spilled oil into the Columbia River. (A detailed write-up of what happened can be found here.)

The concept of corporate responsibility

So if we were to believe in the concept of corporate responsibility for the safety of our citizens, then we might expect -- and be justified in our expectation -- that the corporation involved, Union Pacific, would accomplish the following:

  • Shut down and cordon off the area until all reparation is made.
  • Protect the local people and municipality by ensuring that all city services are not impacted.
  • Remove all oil from derailed cars, CAREFULLY remove the cars from the area, and clean up the soil underneath.
  • Apologize to the local residents and First Nation citizens that were impacted.

Anyone care to guess what the company did instead? Well, it went something like this:

  • The company pushed all of the oil-filled wrecked tanker cars off the track and out of the way.
  • They then resumed operations.

In fairness, it is true that the company agreed to halt oil transports along the railway, but only after after five elected officials put extreme pressure on the corporation to do the right thing. And this is only a temporary hold.

The issues about forcing the company to do the right things with respect to cleanup, infrastructure repair, mitigation, prevention, etc., are still open -- and my prediction is that the company will not address any of these unless forced to by public officials, acting in our behalf to protect us.

We need to consider this when we select political perspectives to represent us and decide how much "personhood" corporations should really have. Let's have a meaningful debate on that and do the right thing. A lot depends on us doing this right.

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.