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News / Northwest

Oil train derails, catches fire near Hood River

By Staff and wire reports
By Staff and wire reports
Published: June 3, 2016, 1:30pm
3 Photos
A train fire in the Columbia River Gorge has evacuated schools in the nearby town of Mosier and shut down Interstate 84 between Hood River and The Dalles.
A train fire in the Columbia River Gorge has evacuated schools in the nearby town of Mosier and shut down Interstate 84 between Hood River and The Dalles. (KATU News) Photo Gallery

A train towing a highly volatile type of oil derailed Friday in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier, Ore., igniting a fire that sent a plume of black smoke high into the sky and spurring evacuations and road closures.

Eleven cars derailed in the 96-car Union Pacific train and several ignited, releasing oil alongside tracks that parallel the Columbia River, said Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for the railroad. All the cars were carrying Bakken oil, a type of oil that is more flammable because it has a higher gas content and vapor pressure, and lower flashpoint, than other varieties.

Authorities said Friday evening they were moving into what they described as a cooling operation at the blaze and said they’d work into the night on suppressing the fire. Union Pacific said it was en route to Tacoma, meaning the train would have traveled through Portland and Vancouver.

The derailment was quick to stir those opposed to the proposed Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

“What’s going on today is exactly the reason people are trying to stop the Tesoro project from going forward. This is exactly what we feared,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper. “This absolutely reinforces the concerns people have and why oil-by-rail is wrong for the Northwest.”

The Vancouver terminal would be the nation’s largest and handle 360,000 barrels per day from an average of four trains per day. That oil would likely travel arrive via BNSF tracks on the Washington side of the river. The proposal is nearly three years old and remains mired in a state permitting process under the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

The Port of Vancouver said it was paying close attention to the derailment on Friday afternoon.

“We’re thankful that so far, no injuries have been reported, and there have been no reports of oil in the Columbia River,” said port spokeswoman Abbi Russell in a statement. “This derailment reinforces the importance of safe rail systems and preparedness at all levels — local, state and national — and we’ll continue to work with our partners to make further progress on this issue.”

Swift reaction

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, Ore.

Paul Lumley, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said oil train derailments could have an outsize impact on tribes along the river.

“Not only are they exposed day in and day out to the air and water in and along the Columbia, these families eat a diet heavy in fish caught from the river at risk,” Lumley said in a statement. “Today’s train derailment and spill shows the catastrophic environmental risks that fossil fuel transportation along the Columbia River poses. The accident is a reminder that we should be reducing, not increasing the number of oil and coal trains along the river.”

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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, about 70 miles east of Portland.

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

Traffic impact

Officials in Mosier closed about 23 miles of Interstate 84 and evacuated a half-mile radius around the spill, including 200 school children who were picked up by their parents. A mobile home park in Mosier was evacuated and its about 50 homes will remain evacuated until further notice. No injuries were reported.

Washington State Department of Transportation spokesman Bart Treece said Friday that traffic was moving to the Washington side of the Gorge. State Highway 14 is seeing slowing on the westbound side near Bingen. However, the highway doesn’t have the capacity to handle the excesses traffic coming over from I-84 and drivers should expect delays.

“If people can defer trips later, that’d be best,” he said. “If folks do continue the trip to go through the Gorge, be prepared for delays and backups.”

‘You could feel it’

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 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 told the AP.

He also drove to the overpass and saw the cars flipped over before a fire started and he called 911.

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

Matt Lehner, a spokesman from the Federal Railroad Administration, said a team of investigators had arrived at the scene from Vancouver.

Union Pacific said 11 cars had derailed, but a spokesman from the Oregon Department of Forestry, which helped extinguish the blaze, said 12 cars had been involved. The discrepancy could not immediately be resolved.

Series of crashes

Including Friday’s accident, at least 26 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, according to Associated Press analysis of accident records from the two countries.

The worst was a 2013 derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Damage from that accident has been estimated at $1.2 billion or higher.

At least 12 of the oil trains that derailed were carrying crude from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region — fuel that is known for being highly volatile. Of those, eight resulted in fires.

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, N.D., 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, Mont., 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.

To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil trains move through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia; Seattle; Chicago; Newark, New Jersey; and dozens of other cities, according to railroad disclosures filed with regulators.

Columbian staff writers Brooks Johnson and Dameon Pesanti and the Associated Press contributed to this report.