Federal investigators Thursday blamed Union Pacific Railroad for a fiery oil-train derailment along the Oregon-Washington border, saying the company failed to properly maintain its track.
Federal investigators on Thursday blamed Union Pacific Railroad for a fiery oil train derailment along the Oregon-Washington border, saying the company failed to properly maintain its track.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s preliminary report comes amid an intensifying debate in the Northwest about oil-train traffic, most of which is routed along BNSF Railway tracks that run along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge and other areas of the state.
In Oregon, the state Transportation Department administrator and the state’s two senators have calledfor a moratorium on oil-train traffic, which Union Pacific has announced is resuming on the Oregon side of the gorge where the accident occurred.
In Washington, state officials have not asked for a temporary halt to oil-train traffic. But in a letter sent last week to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Gov. Jay Inslee asked the department to take a number of precautions, including speeding up a transition to safer tanker cars and lowering speed limits.
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Inslee also asked for new restrictions on the storage of loaded oil tank cars — sometimes for weeks or months — on unused track.
“Residents of Snohomish County, Washington, recently expressed to state regulators serious safety concerns of unattended oil cars sitting within 1,200 feet of an elementary school,” Inslee wrote in his letter.
At least 27 oil trains have been involved in major derailments, fires or oil spills in the U.S. and Canada during the past decade, according to an Associated Press analysis of accident records.
The June 3 derailment in Mosier, Ore., released 42,000 gallons of crude, triggering a fire that burned for 14 hours, damaging a sewage-treatment plant and sending a light sheen into the Columbia River.
During the derailment, a coupler struck one tank car, puncturing it. This allowed crude oil to come into contact with an ignition source, leading to the fire that involved four cars, according to the preliminary report.
The report concurs with Union Pacific’s earlier findings that 16 cars derailed due to broken and sheared lag bolts that help hold the track together.
Federal investigators note that these damaged bolts can be difficult to spot by some types of track surveillance.
But the report found they can be detected by walking inspections “combined with indications of uneven rail wear and are “critically important to resolve quickly.” And it faults Union Pacific for not maintaining the track and track equipment.
“We feel like it could have been prevented with closer inspections, better maintenance,” Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg told the AP.
The preliminary report said agency officials have conducted walking inspections of all curved sections of track in the Columba River Gorge and taken other steps including testing the metallurgy of the broken bolts.
The lag bolts used at the Mosier site are called rectangular timber coach screws, according to the Oregon Transportation Department, and are typically used on curved tracks where wood is used.
On the Oregon side of the gorge, Union Pacific is replacing these fasteners with a “newer generation of a heavier duty bolt,” said Justin Jacobs, a company spokesman. Union Pacific also has been checking other locations, and replacing the bolts where necessary.
On BNSF track on the Washington side of the gorge, spokesman Gus Melonas said, the railway typically uses concrete, rather than wooden, ties in curves of more than 2 degrees. Timber coach screws are not used to secure such ties, Melonas said.
At the time of the accident, Union Pacific officials said the train was traveling at 25 mph. The Federal Railroad Administration said it has now posted a 10 mph speed restriction through Mosier.
The report said the Federal Railroad Administration is “evaluating potential enforcement actions, including violations, and other actions to ensure Union Pacific’s compliance with applicable safety regulations.”
The report also found that advanced electronic brakes proposed by regulators could have made the derailment less severe, Feinberg said. The brakes could have reduced — by two — the number of cars that derailed and prevented the one that first burst into flames from being punctured, officials said.
“We’re talking about upgrading a brake system that is from the Civil War era,” Feinberg said. “It’s not too much to ask these companies to improve their braking systems in the event of an accident so fewer cars are derailing.”