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Oil train derailment puts rail safety back under microscope

An oil train derailment Friday in Mosier, a small town near the Columbia River Gorge, has reignited calls for rail safety improvements.

Last week’s derailment caused 16 tanker cars carrying crude oil to leave the rail tracks, four of which caught fire. An estimated 42,000 gallons of oil spilled. A small amount made it into the Columbia River and created a slight sheen on the water surface, which was contained by floating booms.OREGON DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION PHOTO - Tanker cars carrying crude oil are left scattered along a rail line in Mosier after a train derailment Friday, June 3. The incident caused a fire and an oil spill into the nearby Columbia River.

The fire and oil spill forced evacuations of nearby residences and schools.

Mosier residents were under a cautionary boil water advisory until Monday after oil seeped into the city’s wastewater treatment system.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation by Union Pacific, the rail company hauling the oil.

“We understand that we’re responsible for this and we’re going to make it right,” Justin Jacobs, a media director with Union Pacific’s western region, said Tuesday.

Earlier that day, Union Pacific crews remained on scene to remove oil from the damaged tanker cars and transfer the oil to a temporary storage facility, according to Jacobs, but the company faced heavy criticism for continuing rail operations through the gorge before clean-up and restoration efforts were complete.

Mosier’s city council passed an emergency motion calling for the removal of all oil from overturned tanker cars before resuming rail operations, and state officials also pressed the company.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, whose congressional district includes Columbia County, joined Gov. Kate Brown, along with Rep. Earl Blumenauer and U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to ask Union Pacific to halt all oil train traffic in the Columbia River Gorge until the spill was fully cleaned up.

“Oil train tankers are still lying on their sides in Mosier, the ground and water have yet to be cleaned up, and there’s still no good explanation for the cause of Friday’s crash,” a joint statement from the lawmakers read. The state leaders also vowed to push for alternative rail routes for oil and hazardous materials “that would put fewer Oregonians at risk of a dangerous crash in their backyards.”

Jacobs said the decision to resume rail operations was made by a unified command team, including local, federal and state officials, along with tribal representatives.

“After we cleaned up the scene and the track was reinstalled, the unified command made the decision that it was safe to operate trains again,” Jacobs said. We are operating trains through the area, but we are doing so under a precautionary speed of 10 mph.”

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, did not respond to requests for comment.

Union Pacific officials have yet to announce a cause for the derailment, which happened just two days after the company announced plans to invest nearly $35 million in its Oregon rail infrastructure, including $3.6 million in track improvements to the rail line between Bridal Veil and Hood River to replace 28,342 railroad ties.

Friday’s wreck could have been catastrophic, but instead, it highlighted the risks of hauling flammable materials across rail lines.

Columbia County is no stranger to the issue. When trains began using the Portland & Western Railroad rail line from Portland to Clatskanie to haul Bakken crude oil to Port Westward for transfer to barge, the safety of the county’s schools and cities quickly came into question.

Throughout Columbia County, the rail lines run less than 1,000 feet from schools and a stone’s throw from businesses and homes.

Crude oil operations in the county have since been halted for the time being, after Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery’s announement in January that it would transition from crude oil to an ethanol transfer facility. It’s likely the company would replace its rail deliveries of crude oil with ethanol.

Emergency responders have said that while they train for disaster scenarios like a train derailment or explosion, they would have to rely on fire suppressant and resources from outside the county to properly respond.

The Columbia River is also home to some of the most vulnerable juvenile salmon habitat.

“Mosier dodged a bullet,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, a key organizer with the environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeeper. “Port Westward is a lot closer to the Columbia estuary, and the juvenile salmon habitat.”

Zimmer-Stucky points to hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funded restoration efforts to the estuary.