The fire chief of Mosier, the Columbia Gorge town where an oil train derailed in June, testified Tuesday in a marathon proceeding that will lead to a recommendation on whether to build a major new oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, Wash.
OLYMPIA — The first flames were fueled by a puddle of oil from a leaking train car that derailed shortly after noon on June 3 near Mosier, Ore.
They burned underneath three other cars, and soon all four were ablaze in a fire that first responders were unable to combat for more than four hours because they lacked an armada of 35 to 40 water trucks.
“You don’t start the cooling operation until you can do it continuously,” Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton said Tuesday in Olympia. “Roughly 5:30, 6 o’clock at night we started the first flow of water and kept that up for eight hours … pumping continuously onto the fire.”
Appleton, the only paid employee in an otherwise all-volunteer fire department, visited the Washington state capital as a witness in a marathon, triallike proceeding before the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which is charged with recommending whether to build a major new oil-by-rail terminal proposed in Vancouver, Wash.
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Appleton offered a detailed account of the derailment’s aftermath, praising both the skills of a Union Pacific team that worked to put out the fire as well as the value of a five-county compact that allowed him to marshal first responders with a single phone call.
Appleton described some tense afternoon hours when railroad crews — due to the fault in the track that caused the initial derailment — were initially unable to remove other train cars parked right next to town.
Though the 16-car derailment caused no injuries, Appleton said the damage to his community could easily have been far worse if high winds had fanned the flames and the other fire crews had been unable to respond promptly. And the incident changed his view on oil trains — from a grudging acceptance of the risk to a conviction “that it’s not something we should be tolerating.”
The Site Evaluation Council — composed of state and local officials from southwest Washington — began taking testimony June 27 and is scheduled to hear witnesses until the end of the month.
Its members are gathering evidence about the economic, environmental and safety aspects of a terminal that would be supplied by 28 oil trains rumbling across Washington each week. Sometime in the months ahead, they will offer their recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee who will make the final decision on whether to greenlight the project.
In the early weeks of the proceedings, the Vancouver Energy developers, Tesoro Savage, supplied more than 20 expert witnesses who testified in favor of the project.
They included Todd Schatzki of a consulting firm called the Analysis Group, who forecast the project would generate more than 1,000 jobs annually over 16 years, and add more than $2 billion in economic value to Clark County.
Others testified that the project could reduce dependence on foreign oil, and that it would have safeguards such as escort tugs for the tankers that would pick up the oil from the terminal and carry it to West Coast refineries.
Derailments of loaded, incoming trains pose the biggest risks to human life, and Tesoro-Savage officials note that they are committed to using more secure tanker cars than the ones involved in the Columbia River Gorge derailment near Mosier.
“The data I have seen is that there would be a significant reduction of risk,” said Jared Larrabee, general manager of the Vancouver Energy Project. “We certainly want to be part of the solution to make sure things like this don’t happen.”