- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The (Pendleton) East Oregonian, June 7, on the recent train derailment along the Columbia River:

Friday’s oil train wreck at Mosier, as destructive and damaging as it was, could have been much worse.

Many people could have been killed.

Many buildings - even a whole town - could have been burned to the ground.

The train could have tipped toward the river, spilling even more oil into the Columbia.

It could have closed Interstate 84 for days or weeks.

It could have put rail lines out of commission for weeks or months.

Some certainly consider Friday’s derailment a disaster, no matter how much worse it could have been. And there will be significant, long-lasting environmental and economic damage, though thankfully no lives were lost and no major infrastructure destroyed.

But plenty more could have gone wrong. The same engine, cars and caboose that derailed and caught fire had earlier rumbled through Boardman and Arlington and past Hermiston, as well as numerous other railtowns in Idaho and Oregon. Carrying crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota, many populations both large and small feel the vibration of these rolling, highly flammable loads as they course through their city centers. That definitely doesn’t sound safe.

But rail is currently the only way to transport large quantities of oil across the country. Politically, it has become impossible to approve massive pipeline projects that move fossil fuels from one part of the country to another. Perhaps that is a long-term good, and will help keep more muck in the ground rather than in the ozone, though at the same time it increases our dependence on foreign oil.

And in the short term, transporting oil by rail makes it dangerous than if we used pipelines - although environmental and health and safety dangers exist there, too.

Oregon and Washington representatives have called for a temporary moratorium on oil trains through the Gorge, and Tribal and environmental groups have called for making it permanent. Clearly, they hold a stronger hand than they did when a fiery oil train crash in the Gorge was just a hypothetical.

Right now, it is imperative to clean up the damage to the extent possible. We need to know why the train crashed, and if additional rules and regulations can help reduce derailments. We need to demand Union Pacific and other railroads invest in the safest railcars and technology, to prove that safety really is job one. We must realize that this additional expense will raise the price of oil, but perhaps save destruction and death down the road.

American infrastructure is as weak now as it has ever been, due to our bifurcated political system and the remnants of more than 15 years of war and divestment abroad.

The Columbia Gorge is too important a place ecologically and economically, to tourists and Tribes and citizens from Astoria to Arlington. We’ve spent billions there to restore salmon runs, money that could all be undone in an instant. Eastern Oregon, southern Idaho and the Intermountain West has everything to lose if rail and interstate and even barge traffic was disrupted through it.

The dangers and the threats are high, and we must ask ourselves if the risk is still worth it.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, June 9, on the smoking age:

Congratulations to the Lane County Board of Commissioners, acting as the county board of health, for - well, for acting like a board of health. On Tuesday the board ordered the county staff to draft an ordinance that would raise the minimum age for legal purchase of tobacco products to 21. It’s hard to think of a single act that would cost less, save more and make a larger contribution to public health.

Two states - California and Hawaii - and dozens of cities have already prohibited 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds from buying tobacco legally. Lane County will gain a distinction to be proud of if it becomes the first county in Oregon to follow suit. Like other anti-tobacco measures, the idea of raising the minimum purchase age initially seems difficult or controversial - but once it’s adopted, the question becomes why it took so long.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 95 percent of adult smokers acquire the habit before they turn 21. Young people are most likely to become regular daily smokers when they are 18, 19 or 20. The Institute of Medicine projects that raising the minimum to 21 would reduce teenage smoking rates by 12 percent.

Most people who become smokers start by experimenting with tobacco before they’re old enough to buy it legally - they buy or beg cigarettes from older friends or siblings, or what researchers call “social sources” of tobacco. A higher minimum legal purchase age would reduce the number of social sources. No students in Lane County high schools, for instance, would be able to buy tobacco legally, making it harder for sophomores to get tobacco from seniors.

The tobacco companies understand all this, and pitch their products to young people. “If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are 3 to 1 he never will,” an RJ Reynolds researcher said in 1982. “By age 24, the odds are 20 to 1.” Two years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General said “the tobacco industry aggressively markets and promotes lethal and addictive products, and continues to recruit youth and young adults as new customers of these products.” Lane County should not passively cooperate in this cynical effort.

The county proposal is consistent with the requirement that people be at least 21 years old to buy alcohol and marijuana. Until 1988, some states had lower legal drinking ages. The nationwide adoption of a 21-year-old minimum led to steep declines in traffic fatalities and binge drinking in high schools. Similar effects are likely to follow raising the age for tobacco purchases.

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners discussed whether they had the authority to enforce the proposed ordinance within Lane County’s 12 incorporated cities. That’s an easy problem to solve: The cities can adopt parallel ordinances of their own in case the county law is found not to apply. Lane County is providing leadership on this issue, and if it needs assistance, cities should be prepared to offer it.

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The Daily Astorian, June 6, on Oregon’s increased recreational marijuana market:

Washington’s experience with pot is a cautionary tale for Oregon.

Oregon’s latest incremental step toward full-out normalization of marijuana and its active ingredient THC comes at a time when there are indications legalization is having a detrimental effect on driving safety in Washington state.

Even five or 10 years ago, it would have strained the imagination to envision Thursday’s launch of sales of edible marijuana/THC candy and other products. Although Oregon has a deeper experience than most states with medical marijuana, the cultural and legal changes we’re experiencing now are unique in living memory. Such novelty is exciting to those who enjoy marijuana. Even many of those who don’t imbibe are content with an end to one destructive aspect of the “War on Drugs.”

There are indications, particularly in Washington state and Colorado, that the price of marijuana is rapidly declining. This is likely to also be true in Oregon. This has positive implications that go beyond being easy on the budgets of marijuana consumers.

“As the cost of legal marijuana falls, it puts a strain on any illegal marijuana enterprises still running. This is good because legal marijuana businesses have to do things like ensure product quality and verify the age of their customers. They’re also a lot less prone to crime or violence, given that they’re legal places of business. So if illegal ventures can’t compete, price-wise, everybody wins,” commentator Emma Cueto correctly observed on the online magazine bustle.com.

However, the growing ubiquity of marijuana in the Pacific Northwest has downsides. Even those who had become discouraged with criminal penalties for a comparatively innocuous intoxicant expressed worry about how marijuana would add to existing problems with impaired driving, along with less quantifiable societal impacts like loss of mental acuity and increasing minors’ access to drugs.

In Washington state, there has been an upswing in the proportion of fatal vehicular accidents in which marijuana was found present in drivers. Between the legalization approval in November 2012 and 2014, there was a doubling in the number of fatals in which marijuana may have played a role. Researchers with AAA found that before legalization, 8.3 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had THC in their blood, compared to 17 percent after legalization - many of whom also had alcohol or other drugs present.

Law enforcement is still playing catch-up with the issue. In Washington and Colorado, prosecution for driving under the influence relies on a test finding more than 5 nanograms per milliliter of THC in drivers’ blood. Oregon relies on officer observations to determine whether a driver is impaired.

All this clearly demands close scrutiny by lawmakers, police and the public. While it remains unlikely that legalization will be rolled back, refinements in enforcement and personal responsibility on the part of drivers will be essential.

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The (Medford) Mail Tribune, June 5, on the tiny homes for the homeless:

Of all the arguments we’ve heard against a proposed “tiny house” project for the homeless near downtown Medford, the Southern Oregon Builders’ Association’s is the most perplexing.

Insisting the group is not concerned with the social aspects of Hope Village, a collection of 12-14 tiny houses proposed for a city-owned lot at Third and Front streets, association executive officer Brad Bennington told the Medford City Council that the project would bring down home prices in the vicinity and violate the building codes that apply to all other construction.

Rogue Retreat, a nonprofit organization working to aid the homeless, wants to establish Hope Village on a trial basis. The 8- by 10-foot tiny houses would have no plumbing or electricity, and the project would include communal cooking, bathroom and laundry facilities.

Bennington said the project would open the door to unregulated structures being used as dwellings, but city planners have told the council that tiny houses could be used as shelter without violating building codes.

No one is suggesting that tiny houses should be allowed to take the place of permanent houses. The argument of the proponents is that the structures are better than a tent, which is the only shelter most homeless people have, and many don’t even have that.

As for the declining values argument, it just doesn’t make sense. As Homeless Task Force member Heather Elliott points out, Hope Village supporters aren’t selling houses, they’re providing basic shelter. There are no houses close to the proposed site, which is in a commercial zone. The people who would occupy the units are hardly in a position to buy a home elsewhere or even rent an apartment, so the project wouldn’t have any effect on market demand.

If someone tries to plunk down a tiny house on single-family lot, stick a for sale sign in the yard and pass it off as a permanent dwelling, we would join in the objection. But that’s not what’s happening here.

The Builders Association is not helping its public image by conjuring up a protectionist argument against a project that does not compete with conventional construction in any way. If builders are concerned about the way tiny houses are constructed, perhaps they could donate their skills to build a few.

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The (Portland) Oregonian/OregonLive, June 6, on police accountability:

Back in October 2014, Portland city commissioners professed their commitment to hold Portland Police accountable for their actions. The commissioners at the time were discussing police reforms mandated by a settlement with the federal justice department over excessive force allegations. But the message they sent was not limited to the parameters of the settlement.

Portlanders, Commissioner Amanda Fritz noted, should look to the council as a whole, not just Mayor Charlie Hales, to ensure the police bureau acted in conformance with the values of the community. “For the first time,” she said, “the entire council is responsible for police accountability.”

It’s telling, then, how dead silent she and the other commissioners have been for the last two weeks as the story of Portland Police Chief Larry O’Dea’s accidental shooting of a friend during a hunting trip - and Hales’ failure to disclose it - has unfolded. Being “responsible” for police accountability, it seems, means waiting for someone else to say or do something, no matter the cost to the public’s trust.

The need for someone in leadership to rally the public’s confidence has been obvious from the moment reporters revealed that O’Dea was under investigation for a shooting. There’s the strange details of the shooting itself: O’Dea, camping in Harney County with six others, was drinking alcohol and firing at ground squirrels when he accidentally shot his friend on April 21, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Maxine Bernstein reported. The injury was not life-threatening.

But things got stranger after investigators arrived on the scene. O’Dea misled the deputy, suggesting that the victim had somehow shot himself, Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward told Bernstein. O’Dea never corrected that account, Ward said, even though O’Dea admitted to Hales four days later that he had shot his friend. And the chief never identified himself as a law enforcement officer, a standard practice in off-duty situations where police respond.

Then there’s Hales’ handling of the case. Hales chose to keep quiet about the shooting for nearly a month. Not only did he fail to alert the public to the fact that the police chief was under criminal investigation, but he also failed to refer the matter to the Independent Police Review, which conducts personnel investigations for high-level officers. He also didn’t place the chief on administrative leave until after Ward’s comments about O’Dea’s misleading account. Even then, Hales downplayed the move as a way to help clear some of the “turmoil and confusion” at the police bureau. Certainly, a criminal investigation of a sitting police chief can cause that.

Hales’ statements show that he does not recognize how such special treatment for the police chief harms the integrity of the police bureau as a whole. Putting the chief on leave is the bare minimum of what we should expect from a leader, at least one who understands his loyalty should be to the public, not his cronies. Hales, unfortunately, is not that leader.

So far, the other city commissioners fall into that category as well. None has openly questioned Hales’ decision to keep the matter quiet or publicly urged Hales to place O’Dea on administrative leave. None has come out to say that the allegations of O’Dea’s misleading statements or that his assistant chiefs also knew of the shooting without alerting investigators are troubling. By staying silent, no one is championing the public or acknowledging its justified anger of yet another breach of trust by the police and the leaders who oversee them.

Commissioner Nick Fish told The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board that he shares the public’s concerns about the failure to notify the Independent Police Review, which started its own investigation after reading about the shooting in news reports. He said, however, that he is waiting for the results of the investigation before commenting further.

Chris Warner, chief of staff for Commissioner Steve Novick, said Novick has been out of town since May 20 and that the two have not spoken about the O’Dea case. Novick presumably, however, has access to communications considering he has posted on social media several times since then. Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s chief of staff, Tim Crail, said the commissioner does not publicly comment on personnel issues. Commissioner Dan Saltzman has similarly not come out publicly on the case.

City commissioners don’t need to wait for the results of an investigation to assure the community that they will hold the police chief accountable if he engaged in misconduct. They aren’t violating anyone’s privacy by criticizing Hales’ bad decision to keep such a matter of public importance secret. They can and should offer their support for the Independent Police Review division and emphasize the need for all officials, Hales included, to promptly report cases that require their investigation.

Fritz was right when she said in October 2014 that the community should be able to expect the city council to hold the police bureau accountable. Unfortunately, she and her fellow commissioners have too easily ducked an opportunity to do so.

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