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The day the city of Mosier became an externality

LICHATOWICH On Thursday, June 9, I attended a news conference in Mosier. Six days earlier, 16 tanker cars carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and ignited in a fireball at the edge of town. After exiting I-84, I stopped on the bridge over the railway before going into town. The burned-out tanker cars were removed the evening before, but it was obvious where the derailment took place.

The tracks caught my attention. They were straight and level. No dangerous curves, bumps or downgrades. You would assume a derailment was not likely here. I learned later that, perhaps, the failure of a small bolt caused the accident.

The afternoon of the derailment and fire was one of those rare days in the gorge with no wind. The fire would have been a bigger disaster if the normal winds had been blowing. They would have fanned the fireball into a conflagration that the town could not escape.

Sure, the railroad has promised to clean up the damage caused by the derailment. But the people of Mosier will have costs that cannot be simply “cleaned up.” For example, once you have seen a fireball near your child’s school, you cannot unsee it. Once you have felt the terror of a huge fireball, not knowing where it is headed, you cannot unfeel it. Those feelings may resurface every time black tanker cars pass through town.

At the news conference, I listened to Native American leaders and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. demand that no fossil fuels be shipped through the Columbia River Gorge, but at the same time, a nagging question kept demanding my attention: How can small towns such as Mosier or Hood River ever be prepared for the disasters that the pursuit of oil profits can inflict on them?

Mayor Arlene Burns of Mosier said, “They did not have the capacity to fight these fires.” Burns had learned what being an externality means. Towns like Mosier that want to be prepared for derailment and fire will have to bear the cost of that externality on their own.

Externalities are a special category of costs incurred when a corporation brings a product to market. They are costs that the corporations want to avoid paying so they are not reflected in the market price of the product. The cost avoided is usually borne by a third party, individuals or communities that will not benefit financially from the sale of crude oil or some other product. The corporations who praise free market ideology actually use these avoided costs or externalities to distort the market price of products. The use of externalities has been reduced to a slogan: privatized profits and socialized costs.

Examples of externalities include water pollution from industrial effluents impose the cost of smaller catches to sport and commercial fishermen, health problems created when people eat contaminated fish, and extra costs to cities that must treat the water to make it safe for drinking. Air pollution can impose the cost of health risks as shown recently in Portland. Perhaps the biggest externality related to fossil fuels will be endured by future generations who will have to deal with climate change.

I have attended meetings where citizens asked public officials whether the railroads or oil companies have enough insurance to cover the cleanup following a major disaster. So far that question has been swept under the rug. Are the political leaders not interested in getting the answer to that question, or do they already know the answer and don’t want to reveal it?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told us at the press conference that the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates there will be 12 oil train derailments in the next year. It’s a kind of Russian roulette, or maybe I should call it "market roulette," that will decide which town will become the next externality.

Jim Lichatowich lives in Columbia City.