Oregon Officials Want Hold On Oil Trains After Fiery Derailment

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Above Photo: Destroyed oil tankers laay beside the railroad tracks after a fiery train derailment on June 3 in Mosier, Ore., June 6, 2016. Brent Foster / AP

PORTLAND, Ore. — The fiery derailment of an oil train in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge has state transportation officials asking for a halt to the massive trains because of concerns their heavier weight could be putting extra strain on a certain type of bolt that fastens the rails to the tracks.

The Oregon Department of Transportation discussed its concerns about the safety of the so-called “lag bolts” in a presentation Thursday to the Oregon Transportation Commission and made public a letter it mailed to the Federal Railroad Administration on June 8 asking for the moratorium.

Union Pacific, which operated the train, has said the June 3 derailment was caused by a failure of the bolts, fasteners which are used to attach the rail to the rail tie on a curved section of track. The accident forced evacuations in the tiny town of Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland, and spilled 42,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River. No one was injured.

In a presentation to commission members, ODOT administrator Hal Gard said the lag bolts found at the scene were rusted on both ends, indicating they had been sheared off before the derailment. State officials showed a photo of a pile of lag bolts collected at the site.

Trains that carry only crude oil began running in that section of the Columbia River Gorge in 2014 and state investigators are concerned that the heavier weight and shorter length of those trains might be causing the lag bolts to break. The trains’ weight is spread out over a shorter distance, increasing the pressure on the tracks.

Without the fasteners anchoring the rails to the rail ties, the parallel rails can be pushed further apart, causing a derailment, said Tom Fuller, ODOT’s director of communications. The sloshing of the liquid oil inside the tankers might also mean additional stress as the train’s contents shifts on curves, he added.

“The liquid is heavier and the weight is even more concentrated because there’s a shorter distance between the wheels and that’s what allowed one of the cars to literally come off the rails and then it pulled the other cars with it,” he said.

The lag bolt system was installed on the Columbia River Gorge route in 2001, Gard said, and the rails at the location were replaced in 2013.

Tests conducted by both Union Pacific and ODOT for flaws in the tracks didn’t turn up the faulty bolts, Fuller said.