In the Northwest, the number of trains carrying oil along the Columbia River could dramatically increase, and that’s sharpened a debate over oil train safety in Washington state and Oregon. There’s a plan to ship more oil from the Bakken region to a proposed oil terminal in Washington. As Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, a recent derailment has shown the potential danger the area faces.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On a Friday in early June, more than 40,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled in a fiery oil train derailment that burned for 14 hours.
EMILY REED: It is an incredibly scary thing to have something like this happen so – and within our city limits, so close to our school.
WILSON: Emily Reed is the city council president in Mosier, Ore., the town where the derailment took place. About 500 people live in Mosier, and 100 of them were forced to evacuate when the oil train derailed. Reed points out the town’s deep in the Columbia River Gorge, a canyon with steep cliffs, where winds can reach 40 miles per hour during the summer.
REED: If the wind had been as it is today or more, we would have had a fire going up more than four of those cars, all the way through town and wiping out our town.
WILSON: Union Pacific was to blame for the derailment that caused the oil spill, according to a preliminary report by the Federal Railroad Administration. It says Union Pacific didn’t maintain its tracks properly. However, an inspector certified by that same federal agency checked the tracks and gave them the OK a little more than a month before the derailment.
JERRY OLIVER: It was unfortunate for the community.
WILSON: Jerry Oliver is a port commissioner in Vancouver, Wash., and a vocal supporter of what would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, known as the Vancouver Energy Project.
OLIVER: It’s also unfortunate because it gives a tremendous black eye to anything related to fossil fuels.
WILSON: If built, the terminal would more than double the number of mile-long oil trains traveling along the Columbia River, to about 46 trains per week. Serena Larkin is with the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that opposes the oil terminal. She says until Mosier, oil train derailments were the kind of thing that happened somewhere else.
SERENA LARKIN: Mosier proved that we’re not any different. We are just as vulnerable. We are facing the exact same risks from oil trains that everyone else in North America is facing right now.
WILSON: Despite low oil prices, proponents of the project say the terminal is needed to reduce foreign imports and move domestic oil. For now, it’s relying on oil trains because there aren’t enough pipelines to move oil from North Dakota to the West Coast. Larkin says Mosier’s a turning point in the debate surrounding the Vancouver oil terminal and one that will weigh heavily on whether the project gets permitted.
LARKIN: It showed what the Vancouver oil terminal is really asking Northwest communities to shoulder in risk.
DAN RILEY: I strongly believe that all accidents are preventable.
WILSON: Dan Riley is vice president of government affairs for Tesoro, an oil company behind the project. Since the derailment in Mosier, he says there has been more scrutiny.
RILEY: I think that the criticism is not of the project, but of the rail system.
WILSON: Reilly says Tesoro has also pledged to only allow tank cars with thicker shells and other safety features designed to withstand a derailment into the Vancouver facility. But that’s done little to ease the safety concerns of firefighters and environmental groups. Ultimately, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say on whether the project gets approved. That decision could come later this year. Inslee’s acknowledged the risk oil trains pose. He says the Mosier derailment is among the things he’ll consider when determining whether or not he’ll permit the oil terminal. For NPR News, I’m Conrad Wilson in Vancouver, Wash.
Repost from Progressive Railroading [Editor: Significant quote: “A preliminary report issued last week by the Federal Railroad Administration determined that UP did not adequately inspect tracks in the area and that an electronic braking system would have resulted in fewer derailed cars.” – RS]
Washington Gov. Inslee calls on USDOT to step up crude-by-rail oversight
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee met late last week with Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg to call for a halt to Bakken crude-oil trains through his state until additional federal safety requirements are in place.
The meeting was held in the wake of a Bakken crude-oil train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which resulted in a fire that burned for several hours near the Columbia River Gorge. The Union Pacific Railroad train originated in New Town, N.D., and was on its way to Tacoma, Wash., when the derailment occurred.
A preliminary report issued last week by the Federal Railroad Administration determined that UP did not adequately inspect tracks in the area and that an electronic braking system would have resulted in fewer derailed cars. Sixteen cars derailed in the incident.
“It is unclear at this point whether the FRA has the authority to order a stop to unsafe oil train transport, but they committed to looking into what they can do and will revisit what can be done to halt UP’s Bakken oil train transport until necessary safety improvements are made,” said Inslee in a prepared statement.
Inslee also made a separate request to UP to halt all oil train shipments through Washington until the Class I improves its track inspection protocols.
In the past, the governor has criticized the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for not going far enough to strengthen federal oversight of crude-by-rail shipment.
“Action at the federal level is imperative. Slower train speeds, faster phase-out of older tank cars and electronic braking systems are real actions that can prevent potentially devastating accidents,” Inslee said. “I made clear to Feinberg that federal regulators need to act on these things immediately.”
The Mosier train derailment was caused when an unknown number of large screws, used to provide extra stabilization to rail ties on curves, sheared off — something a railroad official said he’d never seen before in a derailment.
Jason Rea, chief engineer for the western region of Union Pacific Railroad, described at a community meeting Friday in Mosier what had caused the June 3 derailment of 16 oil cars.
The so-called lag screws, which are threaded, are used on curves instead of a straight track spike. And while the lag screws had been severed about two and a half inches below the head of the screw, the top of the screw did not dislodge, which would have been detected by visible inspection, Rea said.
Rather, the sheared screw or screws remained in place.
“I don’t know of any that it has ever happened to,” Rea told the Chronicle after the meeting. “I’ve never experienced this kind of derailment.” He said he’s seen dozens of derailments in his many years with the railroad.
The lag screws were implemented in 1999, he said.
Each rail tie has eight spikes or screws in it. The spikes or screws – four on each end — hold in plates that secure the rail to the tie.
The railroad doesn’t know how many were sheared before the derailment, but some were sheared after a wheel was derailed.
The wheel derailed about 3/10 of a mile east of where the crash actually occurred. Technically, the derailment is where the wheel leaves the rail, and the crash site is called the point of rest.
When the derailment site was inspected, Rea said some of the lags didn’t pop off, but some did.
Rea said the chance that the derailment was the result of sabotage was “very, very, very unlikely.” He said he was confident of that “just because of the way the lag broke. There’s no way somebody could do that, only the train is heavy enough to” do that.
Railroad officials told the audience Friday that the Mosier Community School, which became the command center for the response, would get new carpeting and flooring, and a new floor in the gym. Students were evacuated from the school after the noontime derailment, and the decision was later made to end the school year a week early, so students did not have their final week of school.
In the wake of the derailment, which caused an evacuation of 100 residents and took the city’s sewer treatment plant offline, the railroad is sharply increasing its inspection schedule of the rails through the gorge.
A panel of UP officials who spoke at the community meeting each apologized for the derailment.
Robert Ellis, superintendent of the Portland service unit of the railroad, said it took until about 2 a.m. on Saturday, June 4, to safely put out the fire that erupted from four of the derailed cars. The cars were carrying Bakken crude oil, an unusually volatile oil.
Most of Saturday was spent getting the oil out of the derailed cars and loaded onto trucks. Each car took three to five truckloads of oil. They were able to remove the train that was not derailed, and rerail cars that were not in the immediate point of rest, Ellis said.
It was late Saturday evening by the time they were able to clear cars “from the pile” and move them off the right of way. Early Sunday crews began remediating the soil at the crash site and by mid-morning Sunday they had backfilled the soil and relaid new track.
By late Sunday, they reopened the line.
The community has expressed outrage that the railroad restarted the trains two days before the oil cars were removed from the right of way. Officials with the railroad and other officials who were part of the emergency response have said they made a joint decision to resume traffic because it was safe to do so.
On Monday through Wednesday, crews continued to “transload” oil from the rail cars to tanker trucks. The oil was taken to rail cars in The Dalles, where it will at some point resume its trip to its destination of Tacoma, Wash.
By Wednesday night, all the tank cars were gone, and Thursday and Friday workers continued with remediation and replanting of the Rock Creek Sail Park.
Tim O’Brien, director of hazardous materials for UP, said the backfill work will continue until mid-week this week.
All the parts and pieces needed to rebuild damaged parts of the sewer treatment plant – and 600 feet of pipe leading to and from the sewage plant — have been ordered, O’Brien said, and the rebuilding will begin Tuesday or Wednesday.
The crash happened right on top of a manhole leading to the treatment plant, and oil seeped in through the manhole and “killed” the treatment plant, a city official said earlier. The oil killed the bacteria that fueled the biological process used to treat sewage.
Oil also got to the Columbia River through the treatment plant’s pipes, which dump treated waste water into the river.
Officials are still maintaining booms in the water to capture any oil, although a small oil sheen was only visible for a few days on the river. The railroad continues water and air testing.
O’Brien said that, after enough water was put on the fire to cool it down, it took only 10 gallons of foam to douse the fire. He said six foam trailers will be deployed in July throughout Oregon.
He said the fire had to be cooled down first, because if the tank cars weren’t cool enough, the fire would simply reignite if it was still too hot.
O’Brien said this derailment was the first time that an offensive action was taken to put out an oil car fire.
As for increased inspections, Rea said the new track used the newest, third-generation, lag screws. Crews walked every “lag curve” on the rail line from Hinkle to Portland. There are 71 such curves, which are any bend in the railroad that is a three-degree curve and above.
The railroad has a number of safety devices to test the railroad. A geometry car can test to ensure the rails are their exact 56.5 inches apart, and are at the same level, without any dips on either side.
Visual rail inspections that were previously done two times a week will be done three times a week.
Enhanced rail inspections, which were not done at all before the derailment, will be done three times a week, on “hyrail” vehicles – which can operate either on tracks or on roads or earthen surfaces.
Another vehicle does an ultrasonic test, which sends sonar into the elements of the railroad track and can detect defects.
The Gauge Restraint Measurement System (GRMS) car tests railroad track strength and finds weaknesses. Where that was previously used every 18 months, it will now be used four times a year.
Another device mimics the pressure that a railcar puts on the rail tracks to see how they fare.
Walking inspections of the lag curves in the gorge will be done monthly, where they were not done at all previously.
Chuck Salber, director of risk management for the railroad, is overseeing claims filed by those affected by the derailment. He said residents should see checks from their filed claims in about two weeks. Businesses are more complex, and they can expect a response in two to four weeks, he said.
One woman asked the railroad to consider the needs of residents who do not have the means to pay for a motel room. The woman said she slept in her car for two nights, and was finally put in a motel room that the railroad paid for up front.
She also asked that Red Cross centers be established in the nearest town to an emergency. She said the Red Cross shelter was in The Dalles, when Hood River would have been more convenient.
He said the claim office that was located in Mosier has closed, and now claims can be made at 877-877-2567, option 6.
While rail traffic is only moving at 10 miles per hour through Mosier, it will eventually resume to normal rail speeds through town of about 30 mph. Typical rail speed on a straight-of-way is 55-60 mph.
Wes Lujan, western region vice president of public affairs for UP, said it wasn’t safe to keep rail speeds low, because people get impatient at crossings and try to beat the train, or people try to jump onto slow trains. He said all the people on the panel had seen the bad outcomes of such incidents.
Lujan also spoke to the decision to resume rail traffic even when derailed cars were still lining the tracks.
He said the whole Northwest economy relied on rail traffic, and without it moving, commodities couldn’t get to market, and governments couldn’t operate.
He said the railroad could not refuse to haul oil. He said the railroad was like a parcel service: customers prepare their goods in rail cars that are owned by the customer, and the railroad is obligated to transport the rail cars to the customer’s desired destination.
He said the railroad owns the locomotives, the tracks and the land beneath them.
Rodger Nichols, a reporter for Haystack Broadcasting, asked several questions about whether there was a financial aspect to the decision to resume rail traffic, but Lujan told him repeatedly he could not comment or speculate on it.
He said the railroad will be back in a week for another meeting if need be, or they may just keep office hours at city hall for people to come in with their concerns.
Another man asked if the proposed project to add four miles of double line through Mosier to reduce wait times on the rail line was still going forward. “I think there’s a lot of undercurrent and tension” because of it, he said. “You guys did a great job all around, but the risk is still inherent” with hauling oil trains, and there’s still lots of anxiety.
He said trust was important, and UP “lost it when trains started rolling through immediately.”
Lujan said that was still a matter for internal discussion and it hadn’t been determined if the project would go forward. He said there would be a clear answer a week from Monday.