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Oil trains resume lonely trek through gorge

PMG FILE PHOTO - Just three 'unit' oil trains pass through the Gorge a month, according to Union Pacific.Oil trains resumed their trek through the Columbia River Gorge late last week, but East Multnomah County residents shouldn’t expect to see too many of them too soon.

Out of an estimated 700 Union Pacific trains that travel through the Gorge each month, just three are “unit oil trains,” the industry’s term for trains that exclusively haul oil.

A Union Pacific spokesman, Justin E. Jacobs, said that means crude oil represents less than 1 percent of the total volume transported by the railroad company.

Jacobs wouldn’t say how many crude oil cars are carried in “mixed-manifest” trains, which carry a mixed cargo of various raw materials and finished goods.

The company announced that oil trains would return to the Gorge last week.

In a letter sent to state officials, Wes Lujan, vice president of public affairs for Union Pacific, said he expected normal operations to resume by Saturday, June 25.

“The federal common carrier obligation requires railroads to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials,” he wrote. “If a customer delivers a crude oil tank car in conformity with U.S. Department of Transportation requirements, we are obligated to transport the rail car to its destination.”

Union Pacific has faced numerous calls to halt oil train shipments after an oil train derailed near Moiser on June 3. Sixteen oil tankers slipped off the tracks, spilling 42,000 gallons of crude oil and causing the temporary evacuation of about 100 people. No one was hurt or injured during the incident.

Oil trains, down the drain

While the amount of oil trains may seem low, those numbers correspond with industry trends and annual data collected by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

ODOT records indicate that the number of carloads of crude oil transported in Oregon has dropped precipitously in the last few years.

Shipments peaked in 2014, with 24,199 total crude oil carloads. But by 2015, the number of carloads had fallen to 9,144, a 62 percent decline. ODOT hasn’t published data for 2016 yet.

Previously, the amount of oil shipped through or around Oregon had steadily increased year over year.

In 2000, there were just three total shipments of crude oil. That number jumped to 158 carloads during the next year, but crude oil didn’t break into the thousands of carloads until 2008, when there were 1,685 shipments of crude oil in Oregon.

There’s little evidence to suggest the present decline in crude oil shipments is caused by environmental activists or symbolic calls for moratoriums by elected officials.

Instead, Jacobs, the Union Pacific spokesman, said it was contingent on customer needs.