A multi-car oil train derailment Friday in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier sent up a massive plume of black smoke and stoked long-standing fears about the risks of hauling crude oil through one of the Pacific Northwest’s most renowned landscapes.
Eleven cars from a 96-car Union Pacific train derailed west of the small city about 12:20 p.m., adjacent to a creek that feeds the Columbia River. Several cars caught on fire and at least one released oil, but it’s not clear how much or where the oil went, railroad officials said.
The train originated in New Town, North Dakota, and was moving crude extracted from the Bakken formation to the U.S. Oil & Refinery Co. refinery in Tacoma, said company spokeswoman Marcia Nielsen.
The accident closed a 23-mile stretch of Interstate 84 for hours as a precaution and caused the evacuation of a community school and people in a quarter-mile radius.
State officials were still assessing the accident Friday evening. The cause remained unclear.
“We don’t know whether there’s any environmental damage including whether there’s spillage to the Columbia,” said Jennifer Flynt, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said there are no signs of oil in the Columbia River.
Fire crews will work into the night on the fire and removal of unaffected railcars, authorities said.
The cars derailed within about 20 feet from the city’s sewage plant, said Arlene Burns, mayor of the city of 440 people, east of Hood River. It’s not clear how much damage the plant sustained, she said. Residents have been asked not to use bathrooms and other drains into the city’s sewage lines.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that it’s not fair for trains with toxic loads to come into our towns near our Gorge,” Burns said. “We don’t have the capacity to fight these fires.”
The town, with the motto “Small Enough to Make a Difference,” is known for its orchards and vineyards. It has no gas station and one store. The cars jumped tracks under an overpass about 100 yards away from a mobile home park with 50 to 75 units.
“We need the ability to fight an oil fire which water does not fight nor does sewage,” Burns said.
Thankfully, she said, “It’s not a windy day and it’s not August and the ground is not brittle and dry.”
The fire burned at least a quarter of an acre of nearby land, said state Forestry Department spokesman Ken Armstrong. He wasn’t sure who owns the land.
The Oregon Department of Transportation shut down Interstate 84 westbound in The Dalles by milepost 87 and eastbound by milepost 64. Cars and trucks faced gridlock as they detoured around the area on routes that included a toll bridge over the river between Oregon and Washington state.
Residents reported seeing flames near the K-8 Mosier Community School. Its 160 students were quickly evacuated. Homes in the immediate area were evacuated within about a half-hour, authorities said. A shelter was opened at a grade school in The Dalles.
Union Pacific has hauled two types of oil through the gorge — a thick, waxy crude from Utah and Bakken crude from North Dakota. In late 2015, the company began moving one mile-long train of Bakken oil each week on the Oregon side of the gorge to the Tacoma refinery.
The oil came from the heart of a massive boom that’s pushed an unprecedented amount of crude into the country’s rail system, turning the Columbia River Gorge into one of the United States’ most heavily traveled oil train routes.
Crude oil wasn’t thought to be especially explosive before trains began derailing and erupting in sky-high fireballs in 2013. Those explosions have been driven by the unique characteristics of the crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation and the expansive volumes in which it has moved.
Though Bakken oil is laden with greater concentrations of flammable gases than comparable types of crude, the North Dakota Industrial Commission has begun requiring oil producers to condition the most volatile batches. Its limits have been criticized as far too loose.
Alison Ritter, a commission spokeswoman, said the oil in the derailment would have been subject to those conditioning rules. But its exact volatility isn’t yet known, she said.
Federal regulators have moved to improve oil train safety by requiring upgrades to tank cars. But it will take years for the public to reap the benefits.
The railcars on the train that derailed were all coiled, insulated CPC-1232 models, said Neilsen, the U.S. Oil spokeswoman. Those are a second-generation standard that are being phased out.
“The cars are safer, absolutely,” said Michael Eyer, a retired state rail safety inspector. “But they’re still not designed for an emergency situation such as this.”
Oil spill response crews from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Environmental Quality and National Response Corp., a contractor that works with Union Pacific, were all en route, Flynt said.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement she is “closely monitoring the derailment and ready to make every state resource available as needed.”
Local health officials put out an air quality advisory for people with asthma, respiratory infections, lung or heart disease and diabetes, recommending that they stay inside and limit physical activity.
— FOX 12 Oregon KPTV (@fox12oregon) June 4, 2016
Portland Airport Fire & Rescue was sending a specialized fire truck that carries about 1,300 gallons of fire-suppression foam and a five-person crew to assist in Mosier, said Steve Johnson, a Port of Portland spokesman.
Mosier volunteer fire department workers responded to the derailment, helped by Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue, Hood River County’s Westside Rural Fire Protection District and Wy’East Fire District and the Dallesport Fire Department across the river.
The Federal Railroad Administration said it is aware of the incident and is sending investigators.
An Oregon Department of Transportation rail safety inspector last examined the track in late April, finding 30 defects between Cascade Locks and The Dalles. He didn’t recommend any penalties.
Deficiencies included loose bolts and braces and a tree brushing the side of rolling train cars. Eyer, the former rail inspector, reviewed the report at The Oregonian/OregonLive’s request. He said the issues were routine and not serious.
“They could fix them today and come back next week and have the same thing, just because of the dynamics of having a zillion tons of product going over on a weekly basis,” Eyer said.
Hours after the derailment, traffic still jammed surrounding highways as cars diverted from the interstate, said Judy Dutcher, general manager of Copper West Properties in nearby Hood River.
“It’s all backed up as far as you can see,” she said. “It’s bumper to bumper.”
Westbound interstate traffic was routed across the Hood River Bridge.
Pat Joseph, who lives in Mosier and works at a mill in Washington, said he planned to take back roads to return home. “I’m going where there is no traffic,” he said.
Lisa McNabb of Pocatello, Idaho, was driving west to Portland with her mother, grandmother and two children. She said the group stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s in The Dalles, went to get back on the freeway and found it blocked. She estimated it took about two and a half hours to get to the Oregon side of the Hood River Bridge.
“It’s been a little much,” she said, but everyone seemed to be in good spirits.
Derek Hiser, a Mosier City Council member, lives about a quarter-mile from the derailment site and said he and his colleagues have recently seen increased concerns from residents about oil trains passing through the town.
“People were afraid of something like this happening,” Hiser said. “I think this could lead to a lot of people who weren’t necessarily listened to before being listened to now.”
Hiser said he picked up his 11-year-old daughter from the community school soon after seeing the thick, dark smoke billowing into the air.
“It’s a real tragedy,” he said. “You live in the Gorge for the way of life and when something like this happens, it takes the joy out of it.”