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Oil trains in the Gorge: Are we ready for a spill?

Various government agencies, railroads, tribes hone emergency preparedness in wake of 2016 derailment

By Chuck Thompson, Columbia Insight
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:00am
2 Photos
Crumpled oil tankers lie beside the railroad tracks June 6, 2016, after a fiery train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore.
Crumpled oil tankers lie beside the railroad tracks June 6, 2016, after a fiery train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore. (Brent Foster) Photo Gallery

On June 13, 2023, shortly after 9 a.m., Wasco County Sheriff Lane Magill was among the first to receive the report of an event everyone in the Columbia River Gorge dreads.

An oil train with 23 tank cars carrying 540,000 gallons of crude oil had derailed near the confluence of the Columbia and Deschutes rivers in Oregon. Crude oil was gushing into the Deschutes and threatening the Columbia.

Magill took stock of his on-duty staff — top to bottom, deputies to office staff — then started mentally checking through tasks set out under the National Incident Management System.

“We determined who the incident commander was going be, that falls under NIMS, and we just rolled right into that,” recalls Magill of the episode last summer. “We all moved into our own spots.”

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of a major oil spill in the Columbia and Deschutes last summer, it’s because it never happened.

The imaginary “report” Magill and others received was part of a two-day “discharge train derailment scenario” emergency response drill held at the Fort Dalles Readiness Center in The Dalles, Ore.

The multi-agency simulation — which included more than 150 people from federal, tribal, state, county and municipal agencies, and BNSF Railway — is a legal requirement in Oregon per a 2019 law that requires railroads that transport oil to prepare and practice spill response plans.

Part of the goal was to refine Oregon’s mandated Geographic Response Plan to a train derailment.

The first day was a tabletop exercise in which agencies reacted on paper to the fictitious incident scenario and broke into different groups, such as logistics, planning, finance and operations.

“It’s not laid back,” says Magill. “Maybe people make an assumption when we have these types of exercise, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of government officials sitting around a table eating doughnuts and drinking coffee.’ But when you walk in that room you better be ready to go. We have the mindset that this is actually happening. You have to think that way because if you don’t you’re already behind the eight ball.”

The second day was a field deployment exercise.

“The Geographic Response Plan helps responders immediately assess an incident location and tells them, for instance, what kind of fish, birds or endangered species are in that area,” says Sheridan McClellan, emergency management services manager for Wasco County, who also participated in the exercise. “Wherever an incident happens, responders can open up the plan and find [pre-determined] strategies for each area, such as where to place booms for collection points based on the flow of the river in certain spots.”

Though it was Oregon’s first large-scale training exercise designed to help the state better prepare for a major oil spill from a railroad, the June 2023 exercise was just one of multiple drills that have become commonplace in the Columbia River Gorge since 2016, when a train traveling through the Gorge actually did derail and spill crude oil in Mosier, Ore.

Many residents believe another derailment is inevitable in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, an 80-mile-long stretch shared by Oregon and Washington.

“It’s not a matter of if trains are going to derail again, it’s where and when,” says former Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns.

‘Russian roulette’ on the Columbia

On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific Railroad train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge community of Mosier, a town of fewer than 500 residents about 70 miles east of Portland.

Traveling at 24 mph, 16 oil tank cars jumped the tracks some 800 feet from the river, spilling thousands of gallons of Bakken crude oil.

Three rail cars burst into flames. Firefighters worked for 14 hours to put out the blaze.

But for a rare lack of wind that day, the entire town could have been engulfed. Average wind speed in the Columbia River Gorge, where steep walls act as a funnel, is 10 mph, and sustained winds of 20 mph or faster are common.

“Lack of wind was the reason Mosier and everything to the east wasn’t wiped out,” says Burns, who was Mosier’s mayor from 2015 to 2022. “Our entire city limits were in the blast zone had there been an explosion.”

According to the EPA, only a “minor amount” of oil reached the Columbia River. The agency calculated that of the 47,000 gallons of oil spilled, 16,000 gallons burned or vaporized; 13,000 gallons collected in a nearby wastewater treatment plant; and 18,000 gallons discharged to soil.

The Mosier derailment was a wakeup call for officials responsible for disaster response in the Columbia River Gorge.

Federal, state and local agencies say they’re now better prepared to respond to unexpected incidents.

But the risk of another derailment remains.

And though oil train traffic has decreased in recent years, the number of cars carrying crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge more than doubled in the years following the Mosier spill.

What’s more, spring and summer months mark the height of train traffic on both Washington and Oregon tracks. These months also coincide with peak wildfire danger, creating the possibility of a train derailment causing a wildfire with exponentially greater risks of destruction.

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“I’ve been living in the Gorge for 30 years,” says Burns. “The last 10 years every summer is just like Russian roulette if our town is going to burn down from a fire. It was never like that before. The hotter days have gotten hotter, the periods of hotter days have gotten longer.”

Crude rules

Prior to 2012, rail transport of crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge was virtually nonexistent.

That year, however, volume surged — eventually reaching 60 million gallons per week — thanks to increased fracking of oil and gas from the Bakken Formation, a vast rock expanse in North Dakota.

For railroads, the Columbia River Gorge emerged as the go-to route to move oil from producers in North Dakota to refineries in Anacortes, Cherry Point, Ferndale and Tacoma, as well as California.

“Crude by rail is shifting to the West Coast in a big way,” wrote RBN Energy, an energy market analytics firm, in a 2013 blog post. “As the crow flies the distance from North Dakota to Washington state makes the Northwest a closer refining center than the East Coast.”

As the only sea-level crossing through the Cascade Range, the Gorge quickly became what critics call “a superhighway for fossil fuel transport.”

Lawmakers took note.

Following the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster — when a 73-car Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in the Quebec town, killing 47 people and destroying the downtown area in a massive inferno — legislators in Washington directed the state’s Department of Ecology to create rules targeted at the two major railways operating in the Columbia River Gorge: Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which operates on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, and Union Pacific, which operates on the Oregon side.

The new rules required the railroads to provide the state with emergency plans and proof they have the financial resources to respond to a derailment. The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission also began inspections on railroad crossings located on crude oil routes every 18 months and documenting incident data.

With a major push from environmental advocates, Oregon adopted a law in 2019 requiring railroads that own or operate high hazard train routes to have oil spill contingency plans approved by state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Oregon’s “spill bill” put railroads hauling crude oil or liquefied natural gas under the purview of the state’s oil spill planning program, established fees of up to $20 on each oil tank car entering Oregon or loaded in the state, plus a small annual fee on railroads’ gross operating revenues in Oregon.

The fees help fund Oregon DEQ’s work, including the creation of two rail planner positions within the agency.

Washington outpaces Oregon

Many of the rules in Oregon’s response program have been adopted from Washington.

Washington’s Department of Ecology — which responds to oil spills and other environmental incidents — has traditionally been better staffed and better funded than its counterparts at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Although the 2016 Mosier spill took place on the Oregon side of the river, far more emergency responders to the event came from Washington across the river.

“Ecology has more money, they drill and exercise their own staff way more than Oregon does. Washington by itself, it’s pretty well prepared,” says Richard Franklin of the EPA Region 10 office in Portland. “If we have an incident on the river, both states will respond again. The state of Oregon has brought in some new staffing positions to handle this, they’ve increased their training, so they will be better.”

While Oregon DEQ has expanded its response capacity, the agency will still depend on Ecology and the EPA for support in the event of a disaster.

“The joint Washington and Oregon partnership is so important,” said Kyrion Gray, one of Oregon DEQ’s high hazard rail planners, after the June 2023 exercise in The Dalles. “These events really solidify our dual responsibility and capability.”

How about no crude at all in the Gorge?

The Yakama Nation was one of the first governments to respond to the 2016 Union Pacific derailment in Mosier, bringing resources from its environmental program.

Even before the accident, however, the Yakama Nation and other tribes opposed the transportation of fossil fuels through the Gorge.

“We should not have any fossil fuels coming through our ancestral homeland, especially along the river,” said Austin Greene, tribal chairman for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, after the 2016 Mosier derailment.

“We’ve been a very strong advocate of the fight of a fossil fuel superhighway coming through this Columbia River Gorge,” said JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation at the time of the Mosier incident.

Tribes argue that transporting toxic materials through the Columbia River Gorge impacts natural and cultural resources. They want trains re-routed.

But they aren’t alone in wanting crude oil train operations curtailed in the Gorge.

In 2019, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that allowed the state to turn away trains not meeting state-sanctioned vapor pressure thresholds — a measure aimed at reducing the volatility of transported crude oil.

In 2020, however, the Trump administration blocked the Washington law, saying the state was illegally attempting to dictate the commodities other states can transport to market.

“A state cannot use safety as a pretext for inhibiting market growth or instituting a de facto ban on crude oil by rail within its borders,” wrote Paul Roberti, chief counsel of the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox called the court decision “a victory for … oil-rich states.”

The decision coincided with an all-time high for crude oil train traffic in the Gorge, nearly 115,000 cars in one year.

In lieu of a total ban on crude oil trains, many residents think more could be done to ensure future safety.

Burns would like to see trains travel at slower (i.e., safer) speeds through the Gorge. And for railroads to implement seasonal shipping measures.

“Couldn’t we find a way to ship crude oil for the eight months of the year when it’s moist and rainy and not have that oil shipped at a time when there is tremendous fire danger?” she says. “That would enable us to feel a lot safer.”

Risky business

While crude oil train traffic on both sides of the Columbia River has declined since 2020 — Washington sees about twice as many crude oil train cars as Oregon — an average of 2.5 unit trains carrying crude oil still chug through the Gorge each day. (“Unit trains” are freight trains carrying a single commodity from origin to destination.)

No matter how much crude oil moves through the Gorge, critics say the risk of another derailment defies the historic agreement through which the tracks were approved in some places just a stone’s throw from the river.

“The railroads were given land everywhere the tracks are by imminent domain, and that was based on the public trust,” says former Mosier mayor Burns. “When you start carrying explosive and toxic materials on these railroad lines it’s in defiance of that public trust. Back when they gave them the land that bisected our city and took away our access to the river it was for corn and lumber and supplies and things that provided for the larger good.”

But it’s not just crude oil that concerns residents.

Some of the foam substances firefighters use to extinguish toxic fires contain PFAS (aka “forever chemicals”) that can also be extremely harmful to soil and groundwater.

And other toxic substances — chlorine, hydrochloric acid, ammonia — regularly move by rail through the Gorge.

“What the public has failed to maybe appreciate is if we have one car of chlorine that gets punctured, and in a residential area or town it can be worse than crude oil. It can be death and destruction,” says Franklin of the EPA. “People die. It doesn’t take much.”

“One of the funny things that the railroad guys said to me during [the 2016 Mosier incident] was, ‘you’re lucky it wasn’t chlorine gas.’ I thought, ‘Oh, thanks, then,’ ” says Burns. “We all have been living in oblivion. I think people have no idea what’s moving through the Gorge.”

Richard Franklin was the federal official in charge of coordinating the response to the 2016 Union Pacific spill in Mosier.

As the on-scene coordinator from the Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 (Pacific Northwest) office in Portland, his job was to establish a unified command as prescribed by the Northwest Area Contingency Plan.

This isn’t always easy amid the infamous tangle of stakeholders in the Columbia River Gorge.

Jurisdictional entities in the Gorge include federal agencies like the EPA, Department of Interior (and its subagencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey) and U.S. Forest Service, the states of Oregon and Washington (their responses being led by Oregon’s DEQ and Washington’s Ecology), counties, municipalities and tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Yakama Nation, Nez Perce Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation.

When Franklin arrived in Mosier — after being delayed in traffic on Washington state Highway 14 due to the closure of I-84 on the Oregon side of the river — the situation was already chaotic.

Early on, differing reports from various media outlets led to confusion for responders and the public.

Ultimately, the EPA helped form a joint information center with other agencies.

But in the early hours Franklin was mostly busy pulling together available resources, systems and tools with state, tribal and federal counterparts.

Response teams from the Washington Department of Ecology and Union Pacific Railroad staged floating containment barriers and absorbents (oil boom) on the Columbia River; sprayed 2 million gallons of water on the fire; excavated nearly 3,000 tons of contaminated soil; and deployed air monitors throughout the incident site and the community to check for public health risks.

Post-Mosier preparedness

Franklin has spent 27 years as an on-scene coordinator with the EPA, 15 of them in the South Central Region 6. He’s worked on numerous crude oil spills in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, and was an on-scene coordinator for the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana as it re-entered the atmosphere.

In the last 15 years, he’s worked on high-profile oil spill and hazardous material responses in EPA Region 10 (Oregon, Idaho, Washington, Alaska).

He’s now an EPA Region 10 oil program coordinator, a position that helps guide response to crude oil spills.

So, what’s different in the Gorge since the 2016 disaster in Mosier?

“We’re definitely better prepared for several reasons,” says Franklin. “We had the experience of Mosier. We learned from that. We’ve done a lot better on how we pull together all those resources. One of the lessons we learned was how to better integrate tribes into incident response and command.

“We also learned lessons about what went right. The Bakken crude oil behaved as the models predicted, so we handled that appropriately. The techniques that were used for that worked really well.”

Post-Mosier, the Coast Guard has also partnered with the EPA to conduct exercises, practicing with skimmers and other types of vessels. Practice runs test how long it will take to move equipment and resources upriver and through the locks to get to an incident scene.

Both Union Pacific and BNSF say they’ve increased emergency response preparation.

“Union Pacific (has) trained more than 2,300 Oregon emergency responders in rail-related response processes and played a major role in the formation of state policy impacting oil train safety,” said Union Pacific in a statement to Columbia Insight. “For example, we work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon State Fire Marshall and other agencies, applying lessons learned regarding cleanup, planning and preparedness.”

“BNSF files a response plan with the state of Oregon and participates in annual response drills with leaders from the state Dept. of Environmental Quality and other state, federal and local agencies,” said BNSF in a statement to Columbia Insight. “The railroad also trains and coordinates with local first responders to ensure a robust response to any event occurring along the railway. … BNSF works closely with regulators and leaders in both states to ensure a robust and rapid response.”

Although BNSF doesn’t operate on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge, the company operates elsewhere in the state, including along the Deschutes River.

Future response

So, what might the response to a future derailment look like?

The EPA maintains 15 on-scene coordinators in the Pacific Northwest: nine in Seattle, two in Portland, two in Boise and two in Alaska.

In the event of a train derailment on the Columbia River, the on-scene coordinator would likely be dispatched from Portland, provided the derailment occurred upriver of the Bonneville Dam. (From the Bonneville Dam to the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. Coast Guard has federal jurisdiction for oil spills in the Columbia River. West of the Bonneville Dam boundary any response effort would be led by the Coast Guard; the EPA calls the shots on river disaster response from the Bonneville Dam to the Canadian border.)

This still might not be easy, if only because the Gorge has limited points of access.

“What nobody factored in [in 2016] is if the freeway is closed how do people get there? The traffic jam, the fire trucks had to come from Portland and they were stuck in this 30-mile backup of traffic on I-84. That was a nightmare,” says Burns. “That’s always going be a factor in the Gorge. A huge amount of our support is coming on the very road that might be compromised by the event.”

“Any large incident is always chaotic at the beginning,” says Franklin. “It’s scary. It’s emotional. You get varying reports. The media is descending, wanting information right now. Our job as federal, tribal, state and local agencies is to work through that chaos and pull together a plan and implement it and turn it into an efficient response.”

The federal response plan envisions a small team at the top led by the EPA (or Coast Guard downriver of the Bonneville Dam), two state commanders, local incident commanders, tribal commanders and the responsible party (such as the railroad) who will ultimately pay for the response effort.

All of this effort is applied under the Northwest Area Contingency Plan, a subset of the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan.

The groups work as a team, but the EPA (or Coast Guard) gets 51% of any vote.

“If something does happen, it’s going to take some time to get to (the location) and start booming it up and cleaning it up,” says Franklin. “In the Portland area we have response resources we have to move upriver. We have resources in the Tri-Cities. Depending on the site, it could take an hour or two or five or ten to get to it. In those first few hours, we’re not going to be able to stop a spill. Later on, yes. There are a lot of dynamics.”

The EPA on-scene coordinator will also follow a 96-hour checklist, developed after Mosier, to remind them of the tools and subject matters they need to consider.

To cover immediate costs, the EPA (and Coast Guard) has access to a $50 million emergency fund from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (a fund worth over $1 billion created after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska) to dispense to Tribes and local agencies. The spill’s responsible party would, theoretically, eventually reimburse those costs.

From behind a desk or during a field drill, all of this might feel like a comforting response strategy for a future derailment.

That still doesn’t make the transportation of crude oil and other toxic substances through the Gorge 100% safe.

“It’s like trying to prepare for a water leak when there are thousands of bits of pipe everywhere. How to do you prepare for when and where a pipe is going to break?” says Burns. “Our [Mosier] derailment was caused by a rusty bolt. The track was inspected a few days before the derailment and they did not detect the rusty bolt.”

Over the last decade, an average of about 1,300 trains derailed each year in the United States, according to USA Facts. In 2022, there were at least 1,164 derailments—that’s more than three derailments per day, though few of these resulted in major disasters.

So, how likely is another train derailment and toxic spill in the Columbia River Gorge?

“The railroad companies have statistics on how many tons of cargo have gone how many miles without an incident and when you look at those statistics it looks pretty good,” says Franklin. “But accidents occur or I wouldn’t have this position.”

Columbia Insight, based in Hood River, Oregon, is nonprofit news site focused on environmental issues of the Columbia River Basin.