When a 96-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Mosier, Ore., in June — triggering a major fire and spilling more than 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River Gorge — we were alarmed, but not surprised.
We had seen similar disasters in Canada and the United States as the volume of Bakken crude exported on rail surged in recent years, endangering communities and environment. Now, we have experienced one first-hand.
More than 200 children at the nearby school were evacuated, and 100 residents who lived near the rail line. An estimated 22,000 gallons of crude spilled into Mosier’s wastewater treatment plant; another 20,000 gallons contaminated the soil or burned in a toxic fire that lasted 15 hours. Even after 3,000 tons of contaminated soil was removed, tests revealed groundwater contamination.
The still-charred landscape shows the damage, which would have been even more catastrophic under different circumstances.
Had the wind been stronger that day, the fire would have exploded could have incinerated the town. Had the train derailed 7 miles farther west, the blast zone would have devastated a larger city, Hood River, Ore. Had it derailed closer to its final destination, the blast zone would have covered parts of Tacoma, a city of more than 200,000 people.
It’s no longer a question of whether such an explosion will hit one of our population centers, but of when. A federal study last year predicted that trains hauling crude oil and ethanol will derail 10 times a year, do more than $4 billion in damage, and endanger lives in densely populated areas.
That’s in addition to the impact of mile-and-a-half-long trains on our economy. These long trains snarl traffic at railroad crossings, delay emergency responses, and make it harder for farmers and manufacturers to get locally produced goods to market.
Oil and coal companies reap the profits, while local communities are left with the cost and the risk.
Allied for quality of life
To protect the quality of life in our region, we must have a united front, with Northwest cities, counties, states and tribes speaking with a single voice. That’s why we joined together as the Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, with more than 165 elected leaders from Western states and British Columbia working together to protect our people, our economy, and our environment.
We have weighed in on coal- and oil-export terminal proposals across the Northwest and pushed for stronger safety measures for oil transport — and have gradually made progress. Six years ago, we faced the prospect of six coal-export terminals. Today, only one of those proposals is still being considered, in Longview.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown both signed laws to strengthen public safety along rail lines. This year, we celebrated the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ denial of a permit request to build a massive coal-export facility near Bellingham, upholding the treaty rights of Lummi Nation.
The biggest threat we face today is the proposed Tesoro-Savage terminal in Vancouver, which, if built, would receive 360,000 barrels of highly flammable crude each day. It would be the largest facility of its kind in North America.
We recently met in Vancouver, discussing actions we can take at the local and state levels to prevent another disaster like the one in Mosier. We also discussed how to help the region transition from a superhighway for hazardous fossil-fuel transport to a source of cleaner, safer energy that will fuel the 21st-century economy.
We should capitalize on our region’s proven strengths — a proud history of innovation, world-class research universities, and strong international trade connections — to establish the Northwest as a hub for clean-energy solutions and sustainable economic development.
In the meantime, we will build on our progress to protect the health and safety of communities on both sides of the Columbia River.