VIDEO: 11 oil train cars derail in Columbia River Gorge, cars erupt in flames, I-84 closed

Repost from KATU Portland, OR

11 oil train cars derail in Columbia River Gorge, cars erupt in flames, I-84 closed

By KATU.COM staff and the Associated Press, June 3, 2016

MOSIER, Ore. — A Union Pacific train towing oil cars derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge Friday, evacuating schools in the nearby town of Mosier and closing down Interstate 84 between Hood River and The Dalles.

According to Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, 11 cars in the 96-car train derailed around noon near Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland.

The train was hauling oil from Eastport, Idaho, and was headed for Tacoma, Washington. It was carrying Bakken crude oil, a type of oil known to be highly volatile.

According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, one car is fully engulfed in flames and another one is on fire. From KATU’s Chopper 2, however, it was clear that more than one car was on fire — perhaps as many as four.

A spokesperson from the state fire marshal’s office told KATU that so far there have been no injuries reported. The spokesperson said firefighters were taking a defensive stance in their battle against the flames and the best course of action may be to let the fire burn itself out.

Mosier students were taken to Wahtonka campus in The Dalles. Parents living in the area could pick up their students from that location; the district scheduled buses for the remaining students.

The Union Pacific train derailed just after noon. The ensuing fire created a large plume of black smoke rising from the train tracks near Mosier, which is located off I-84 east of Hood River.

Gresham Fire confirmed that their HazMat crews are heading to the scene. Dept. of Environmental Quality officials said they are investigating the impact of the derailment and fire.

Interstate 84 was closed for a 23-mile stretch between The Dalles and Mosier and the radius for evacuations was a half-mile.

Portland Airport Fire & Rescue has sent a specialized firefighting foam truck carrying about 1,300 gallons of fire suppression foam, four firefighters and a chief to aid in the firefighting effort.

Silas Bleakley was working at his restaurant in Mosier when the train derailed.

“You could feel it through the ground. It was more of a feeling than a noise,” he told The Associated Press as smoke billowed from the tankers.

Bleakley said he went outside, saw the smoke and got in his truck and drove about 2,000 feet to a bridge that crosses the railroad tracks.

There, he said he saw tanker cars “accordioned” across the tracks.

Another witness, Brian Shurton, was driving in Mosier and watching the train as it passed by the town when he heard a tremendous noise.

“All of a sudden, I heard ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ like dominoes,” he said.

He, too, drove to the bridge overpass to look down and saw the cars flipped over before a fire started in one of the cars and he called 911, he said.

“The train wasn’t going very fast. It would have been worse if it had been faster,” said Shurton, who runs a windsurfing business in nearby Hood River.

Environmental Concerns

The accident immediately drew reaction from environmentalists who said oil should not be transported by rail, particularly along a river that is a hub of recreation and commerce.

“Moving oil by rail constantly puts our communities and environment at risk,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Eugene, Oregon.

It wasn’t immediately clear if oil had seeped into the river or what had caused the derailment. Hunt did not know how fast the train was traveling at the time, but witnesses said it was going slowly as it passed the town of Mosier.

Response teams were using a drone to assess the damage, said Katherine Santini, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service.

Since last spring, North Dakota regulators have required companies to treat oil before it’s shipped by rail to make it less combustible.

A May 2015 derailment near Heimdal, North Dakota, involved cars carrying oil that had been treated to reduce the volatility, but the crude still ignited. At least one train wreck involving treated Bakken oil did not result in a fire, when 22 cars derailed and 35,000 gallons of oil spilled near Culbertson, Montana, last July.

Reducing the explosiveness of the crude moved by rail was not supposed to be a cure-all to prevent accidents. Department of Transportation rules imposed last year require companies to use stronger tank cars that are better able to withstand derailments.

But tens of thousands of outdated tank cars that are prone to split open during accidents remain in use.

It’s expected to take years for them to be retrofitted or replaced.

Hunt, the Union Pacific spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether the Bakken oil in Friday’s derailment had been treated to reduce volatility. It also wasn’t clear if the tank cars in the accident had been retrofitted under the new rules.

Matt Lehner, a spokesman from the Federal Railroad Administration, said a team of investigators was headed to the scene from Vancouver, Washington.

Gov. Kate Brown sent out the following statement regarding the incident.

“I am grateful to local first responders, HazMat teams, and other state agencies for doing their best to keep the community of Mosier safe,” she said. “I am closely monitoring the situation and ready to make every state resource available as needed. I ask that travelers seek alternate routes away from this area until further notice. The Oregon Department of Transportation will provide continuous updates on travel conditions.”

This is a developing story, updates will be posted as information comes in.