LATEST DERAILMENT: Oil train derails near Mosier in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge

Repost from the Oregonian

Oil train derails near Mosier in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge

By Tony Hernandez, June 03, 2016 1:03 PM, updated 6:37 PM
Video frame grab from KGW of an oil train, operated by Union Pacific, which derailed near Mosier, Oregon, June 3, 2016.

A multi-car oil train derailment Friday in the Columbia River Gorge at Mosier sent up a massive plume of black smoke and stoked long-standing fears about the risks of hauling crude oil through one of the Pacific Northwest’s most renowned landscapes.

Eleven cars from a 96-car Union Pacific train derailed west of the small city about 12:20 p.m., adjacent to a creek that feeds the Columbia River. At least one car caught on fire and released oil, but no one was injured, said railroad spokesman Aaron Hunt.

The train originated in New Town, North Dakota, and was moving crude extracted from the Bakken formation to the U.S. Oil & Refinery Co. refinery in Tacoma, said company spokeswoman Marcia Nielsen.

The accident closed a 27-mile stretch of Interstate 84 for hours as a precaution and caused the evacuation of a community school.

State officials were still assessing the accident early Friday evening. The cause remained unclear.

“We don’t know whether there’s any environmental damage including whether there’s spillage to the Columbia,” said Jennifer Flynt, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said there are no signs of oil in the Columbia River.

The cars derailed within about 20 feet from the city’s sewage plant, said Arlene Burns, mayor of the city of 440 people, east of Hood River. It’s not clear how much damage the plant sustained, she said. Residents have been asked not to use bathrooms and other drains into the city’s sewage lines.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that it’s not fair for trains with toxic loads to come into our towns near our Gorge,” Burns said. “We don’t have the capacity to fight these fires.”

The town, with the motto “Small Enough to Make a Difference,” is known for its orchards and vineyards. It has no gas station and one store. The cars jumped tracks under an overpass about 100 yards away from a mobile home park with 50 to 75 units.

“We need the ability to fight an oil fire which water does not fight nor does sewage,” Burns said.

Thankfully, she said, “It’s not a windy day and it’s not August and the ground is not brittle and dry.”

The fire burned at least a quarter of an acre of nearby land, said state Forestry Department spokesman Ken Armstrong. He wasn’t sure who owns the land.

The Oregon Department of Transportation shut down Interstate 84 westbound in The Dalles by milepost 87 and eastbound by milepost 64. Cars and trucks faced gridlock as they detoured around the area on routes that included a toll bridge over the river between Oregon and Washington state.

Residents reported seeing flames near the K-8 Mosier Community School. Its 160 students were quickly evacuated.

Union Pacific has hauled two types of oil through the gorge — a thick, waxy crude from Utah and Bakken crude from North Dakota. In late 2015, the company began moving one mile-long train of Bakken oil each week on the Oregon side of the gorge to the Tacoma refinery.

The oil came from the heart of a massive boom that’s pushed an unprecedented amount of crude into the country’s rail system, turning the Columbia River Gorge into one of the United States’ most heavily traveled oil train routes.

Crude oil wasn’t thought to be especially explosive before trains began derailing and erupting in sky-high fireballs in 2013. Those explosions have been driven by the unique characteristics of the crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation and the expansive volumes in which it has moved.

Though Bakken oil is laden with greater concentrations of flammable gases than comparable types of crude, the North Dakota Industrial Commission has begun requiring oil producers to condition the most volatile batches. Its limits have been criticized as far too loose.

Alison Ritter, a commission spokeswoman, said the oil in the derailment would have been subject to those conditioning rules. But its exact volatility isn’t yet known, she said.

Federal regulators have moved to improve oil train safety by requiring upgrades to tank cars. But it will take years for the public to reap the benefits.