The town of Mosier, Oregon caught a break last week when a Union Pacific train carrying oil from North Dakota’s Bakken field derailed and caught fire near a school and 50 homes.
Residents were evacuated, and an oil spill polluted the Columbia River, a source of irrigation water for thousands of farms and drinking water for riverside communities. But “the troubling aspect of the Mosier accident is that it was pretty much the best case scenario for oil train safety,” DeSmog Blog reports, in a post republished on Resilience.org.
“The train ‘wasn’t going too fast’, the tank cars were the ‘best’ of the group of existing cars that are scheduled for retrofits to improve safety, the oil had been ‘conditioned’ as per North Dakota regulations to supposedly make it less dangerous before it was put in the tank cars, the tracks had recently been inspected and defects had been fixed.” And “about a month ago, there had been an oil train safety training exercise involving two railroads and local first responders at this very location in Mosier,” DeSmog writes.
“And yet, with everything possible going right in Mosier, a train derailed and the Bakken oil provided its signature explosions and fires.”
Local reaction was swift and furious. “Mosier really dodged a bullet in the last 24 hours,” said local fire chief Jim Appleton. “I hope that this becomes the death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane.”
“I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now,” Appleton added. “But with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”
Union Pacific may not have caught up with that sentiment, however. “Mosier city officials quickly passed an emergency motion calling on Union Pacific to remove all oil from the damaged cars before the line was reopened, but Union Pacific just pushed the disabled cars to the side of the track and restarted operations,” Grist reported Monday.
“Restarting trains before the high-risk carnage of their last accident is even cleared from the tracks is telling Mosier they are going to play a second round of Russian roulette with our town,” said Mayor Arlene Burns.
“We feel it’s still unsafe for trains of any kind to come through the area when these oil bombs are sitting on our front steps,” she later told The Oregonian.
Later that day, the railroad announced a temporary suspension of oil trains through the Columbia River Gorge. “We do not intend to run crude oil unit trains and will inform the community of when we intend to resume operations,” said spokesperson Justin Jacobs.
But “the company’s announcement leaves open the possibility that crude oil will continue moving in what are called mixed-manifest trains—those that haul a few tank cars of oil interspersed with other commodities,” The Oregonian explains. “A ‘unit train’ of oil, the wording the railroad used in describing the shipments it was temporarily halting, carries only crude. Those trains can move more than three million gallons of oil apiece and stretch longer than a mile.”
Minutes before the Union Pacific statement, Governor Kate Brown, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici had called for a temporary moratorium. “A train full of toxic crude oil derailing, burning, and exploding near homes, schools, and businesses is a worst fear realized for people who live in Mosier and in other communities along the tracks throughout the Gorge,” they said. “They deserve to know that the causes of this derailment have been both identified and fixed, and there should be a moratorium on oil train traffic until they get those explanations and assurances.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration said the train had met government standards limiting vapour pressure inside the tanks, reports the North Dakota Bismarck Tribune. Union Pacific’s Jacobs said there were early indications the derailment had been triggered by “an unusual failure with a fastener that connects the railroad tie to the rail.”