Another Oil-By-Rail Fire Near Portland

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1There are currently only one or two trains going through the Columbia River Gorge every day. Imagine what would happen if all the fossil fuel projects in this region were approved. Up to a hundred trains, averaging between a mile and a mile and a half in length, and would make this same trek weekly. Six months ago, a truck driver was killed in a railway accident within Portland’s city limits. The flames spread to eight railway cars, carrying oil or asphalt, which luckily did not catch fire. There was another oil-by-rail fire near Portland today.

Another Oil By Rail Fire Near Portland

Plume of smoke rising from the fire near Mosier, OR – Courtesy Columbia Riverkeeper

Shortly after noon, a 96-car-Union Pacific train was derailed close to Mosier.  A witness subsequently told ABC news, “All of a sudden, I heard ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ like dominoes.”   At least two cars, carrying Bakken crude, caught fire.

According to a  Mosier Fire Department Volunteer there was not sufficient  fire fighting foam available, so they were waiting for some of the fuel to boil off before attempting to disconnect the two damaged cars from the rest of the train.

“They had to evacuate a nearby school and shut down the I-84. … The immediate concern is the fire risk. It is supposed to be 100 degrees (F) tomorrow. They have to get this fire out, but there is also a huge amount of toxic pollution that is associated with burning Bakken crude oil: benzene, which is a carcinogen; organic compounds; particulate matter. All of that stuff is being belched into this little town of Mossier. People are smelling and seeing this stuff all the way down to Dog Mountain, which is many, many miles away down river.” said Dan Serres, Conservation Director with Columbia Riverkeeper.[1. Roy L Hales interview with Dan Serres, Conservation Director with Columbia Riverkeeper.]

Cars Do Not Have Thermal Blankets

“These trains were carrying very explosive Bakken crude, and accidents like this often result in several tank cars catching fire and even exploding, since they do not have thermal blankets.  … It remains unknown whether oil has reached the Columbia river – home to numerous imperilled species of salmon,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Plume of smoke rising from the fire near Mosier, OR – Courtesy Columbia Riverkeeper

He added, “The tank cars involved are known to puncture easily, and these will remain in service for several years, even under the new regulations. Furthermore, reports I read stated that the train was moving slowly, so the speed restrictions in the new rules are simply not sufficient to prevent further fiery derailments.  Therefore, this is not only significant for the potential harm to the immediate community and sensitive habitats in the Gorge, it is further evidence that not enough is being done to prevent bomb train disasters.”[2. Email from Jared Margolis, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity]

The new federal regulations appear to prefer the railway’s convenience to public safety. Margolis wrote that the old puncture-prone tank cars will remain in service for up to 10 years and new trains are being allowed to travel at speeds in excess of their puncture resistance.”

A Huge Wake-Up Call

During the past seven years, the amount of oil by rail traffic to the coast has increased over 5,000%. This has resulted in a corresponding surge in the number of oil train derailments, spills, fires, and explosions. According to a draft report from the U.S. Department of Transport:

“The United States has experienced a dramatic growth in the quantity of flammable liquids being shipped by rail in recent years. According to the rail industry, in the U.S. in 2009, there were 10,800 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail. In 2013, there were 400,000 carloads. In the Bakken region, over one million barrels a day of crude oil was produced in March 2014, most of which is transported by rail.”[3. Department of Transportation, Draft Report, Hazardous Materials: Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains; Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, p 2]

There are currently four major oil-by-rail projects proposed for the Columbia River. The largest is Tesoro Savage, in Vancouver (WA), Which “would require at least four unit trains per day, with each train extending for approximately 1.5 miles.”

Aerial photos of the Mosier fire by Paloma Ayala

As the oil trains are too heavy to go over the Cascade passes, this region could become the arail conduit for projects through-out Washington and Oregon.

The Union Pacific train that derailed today was to have gone through Portland, before crossing the bridge to Vancouver (WA) and heading north to Tacoma, Washington.

“I think this is a huge wake-up call because we don’t see an enormous amount of oil-by-rail traffic yet. What we see is what could happen anywhere along if they were to build some of these larger terminals that are proposed, like the Tesoro Savage. This is a snapshot of what we could see in downtown Vancouver (WA), Portland, or any of the towns along the Columbia Gorge. It is stomach turning to watch this, which so many people have predicted it in the past,” said Serres.

Portland’s Oil-By-Rail Resolution

Last November, Portland’s City Council passed a resolution opposing “oil-by-rail transportation through and within the City of Portland and the City of Vancouver, WA….the City of Portland supports the preparation of a programmatic, comprehensive, and area-wide Environmental Impact Statement to identify the cumulative effects that would result from existing and proposed oil-by-rail terminals.”

Portland has sought legal advice on how to draft a law to this effect.

Vast Majority Opposed To Tesoro Savage

The vast majority of more than a thousand people who turned out to a public meeting on the Tesoro Savage project, in Vancouver WA, were opposed. They were elected officials from Vancouver (WA) and Portland, health professionals, Tribal leaders, union officials, business owners, faith leaders and community members.

Aerial photos of the Mosier fire by Paloma Ayala

Proponents cited statistics from the Association of American Railroads claiming that, “99.997 percent of all hazardous materials moving by rail continues to reach its destination without a release caused by an accident.”

276 derailments in the Northwest 2011-2013

This is contradicted by data the Sightline Institute collected from the US Federal Railway administration. There were  276 derailments in the Northwest region between June 2011 and December 2013.

“Over the 31 month period we tracked, the region saw an average of 8.9 derailments of freight trains each month—roughly one every three-and-a-half days.”

International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 4 President Jared Smith told the meeting that oil-by-rail proponents “continue to downplay the risk.”

“We’ve been told by local firefighters that they aren’t prepared (for a large scale oil fire) and they can’t come in to get us. We don’t want to work around these oil trains and this (Tesoro Savage) Facility.”

Washington’s Governor will soon decide whether the Tesoro Savage project will go forward.

“What happened today should give the state of Washington all the information it needs to shut these projects down,” said Serres.

Top photo: Mosier fire – Courtesy Columbia Riverkeeper


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