A Union Pacific oil train has derailed and smoke and flames can be seen in Mosier, Ore., in the Columbia River Gorge.
MOSIER, Ore. — The fiery derailment of oil-train cars in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland Friday afternoon has rekindled debate about the drawbacks of the Pacific Northwest’s role in crude-oil transport.
Several rail cars in the 96-car Union Pacific Railroad train bound for Tacoma derailed here about 12:20 p.m., railroad and state officials said. Emergency responders quickly swarmed the area. Hours later, the extent of the environmental impact on the region remained unknown. No injuries or fatalities were reported.
Some residents of Mosier, which is about 70 miles east of Portland, were under mandatory evacuation orders. The train derailed less than a half-mile from the center of town. Other people stayed, though, and discussed the crash.
“I just think this is why all of us wonder why we should have more oil trains coming through the Gorge,” said Megan Farrell, a schoolteacher.
Soon after news of the incident spread, many state and local leaders issued statements of sympathy for this town of about 450 residents, stressing that the derailment underscores the risks of the growing number of crude-oil trains traveling through the region.
“While it is fortunate that there aren’t any reports of people being injured in today’s derailment, there is surely harm to our natural environment from oil spills,” state Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, said in a statement.
Hazardous-materials teams were at the site into the evening. The train originated in Eastport, Idaho, and was headed to the U.S. Oil & Refinery Co. refinery in Tacoma with highly volatile Bakken crude oil. Eleven oil tankers derailed, officials said. Four of them continued to burn into the evening.
The Washington state Department of Ecology’s team was monitoring the smoke and runoff into the evening and confirmed at 7 p.m. that no oil had entered the Columbia River.
Kristen McNall, a Mosier resident, high-tech consultant and volunteer for the Mosier Fire Department, was working on logistics for an estimated 100 firefighters from all over the region. “We’ve got people from all over, from Portland, and the Yakama Nation,” she said.
Cause is unknown
Herb Krohn, legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the union that represents workers on the train, said the derailment occurred 18 cars back from the front of the train, on relatively straight track.
“When the derailment happened, they looked back, and saw smoke,” Krohn said.
Generally when a derailment happens that far back from the head of a train, it is caused by equipment failure rather than human error, Krohn said.
Krohn said it could be months before investigators know the derailment’s cause.
As a precaution, the Oregon Department of Transportation shut down a roughly 27-mile stretch of Interstate 84, which reopened before midnight Friday. Also, about 200 students in Mosier schools were evacuated to the Wahtonka Community School campus in The Dalles, according to Susan Vallie, community coordinator for Mosier Schools.
Ironically, the derailment occurred as the Washington state Department of Ecology was holding public hearings on rules to make oil transport by rail safer in the state. That includes advance notice to towns of oil shipments, so response plans can be in place, said Lisa Copeland, spill communication manager for the Department of Ecology.
Also, about a month ago, BNSF Railway and Union Pacific participated in emergency-preparedness training with various county agencies and the U.S. Forest Service. The scenario: an oil-train derailment and wildland fire, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said. The exercises involving about 60 people took place at the exact site of Friday’s derailment, Melonas said.
The shale-oil revolution
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In the past decade, U.S. wildcatters figured out how to coax crude oil from shale-rock formations, unleashing a surge in oil supply that has brought down gasoline prices, lessened America’s reliance on oil exports and redrawn the map of production and transportation of energy in the U.S.
As a result, Washington and Oregon have become critical corridors as dozens of trains carry light crude, much of it bound for refineries in Western Washington. It has helped offset a rapid decline in the production of crude from Alaska, the refineries’ traditional source of supply.
A significant amount of the oil comes from North Dakota’s bountiful Bakken shale formation — light crude that’s highly valued because it can be easily turned into gasoline, but also is much more flammable and dangerous in case of a spill.
Each week, more than 15 oil trains cross Skamania and Klickitat counties, on the Washington side of the Columbia. Western Washington sees significant train traffic, with 18 trains traveling through Pierce County per week and 15 per week in King County.
In a November 2015 filing with the Washington Military Department, Union Pacific told state officials that it planned to send up to one train per week with more than 35 cars carrying Bakken crude through 10 Washington counties, including Thurston and Pierce.
At least 10 oil-train derailments and explosions have occurred over the past two years, according to a compilation by the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank.
Oil-train traffic is poised to ramp up significantly in Washington, with terminals planned in Vancouver, Anacortes and the Port of Grays Harbor.
The project planned by Tesoro in Vancouver could put four to five more oil trains per day through the Columbia Gorge, each with as many as 120 oil cars in trains a mile and a half long.