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‘They Did Everything They Could Have Done’: The Tragedy Of The Oregon Oil Derailment

CREDIT: COLUMBIA RIVERKEEPER

On Friday, June 3, a Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed on a tiny strip of land running between the Columbia River and the small town of Mosier, Oregon. Sixteen train cars carrying crude oil derailed, and four of those cars were breached, spilling oil and igniting in flames. Following the derailment, a rainbow sheen appeared on the Columbia, near the derailment — a sign that some of the spilled crude had found its way into the river. All told, the derailment spilled 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude into the soil, wastewater system, and Columbia River near Mosier.

Days after the spill, things in the town of Mosier — and along the Columbia River — are both markedly different and eerily the same. Community residents have resumed their opposition to the shipment of crude oil through their small town. Mosier’s fire chief has called the practice “insane.” Governor Kate Brown, along with other state and federal leaders, has called for a temporary moratorium on oil trains in the Columbia River Gorge.

And yet, as of Monday, Union Pacific had resumed business, sending trains through the very corridor where, days earlier, oil cars lay on their sides ablaze. The derailed cars are still there, just to the side of the tracks, potentially still leaking oil as Union Pacific’s cargo trains make their way down the Columbia Gorge and to ports along the Pacific.

A Union Pacific train rolls through Mosier as derailed oil cars sit nearby. CREDIT: Columbia RiverKeeper

“Mosier still does not have potable water, still doesn’t have a sewage system, and Union Pacific is moving trains again,” Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia RiverKeeper, told ThinkProgress. “It’s clear that profit for the fossil fuel industry is trumping the health and safety of people that live along these corridors.”

The Mosier oil train derailment comes at a time when fossil fuel companies are redoubling their efforts to move oil, gas, and coal through the Pacific Northwest. Two of the largest fossil fuel export terminals — an oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver and a coal export terminal in Longview, Washington — are entering the final phases of their proposals. Decisions are expected to come within a year or two on both. If constructed, the Vancouver Energy Project in Vancouver would be the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the United States, and would send oil trains like the one that derailed in Mosier rumbling through the Columbia Gorge at a much higher rate — as many as five oil trains a day would travel down the same tracks where the Mosier spill occurred. That’s nearly half of the amount of oil that would have moved through the contentious Keystone XL pipeline, transported via train through communities on a daily basis, Serres said.

“The trains that are going through now are a tiny microcosm of what is proposed,” he said. “If the oil terminal proposals went through, you would have many times the number of trains that go through. At this rate of derailment, we can expect to see these things happening at a fairly regular interval.”

A dangerous history

Less than half a decade ago, fossil fuel companies began eyeing the ports of the Pacific Northwest as the next logical step for expanding their markets. For coal, the deep water ports of the Columbia River offered the perfect jumping off point to Asian markets, where — contrary to domestic markets — demand for coal seemed to only be expanding.

For oil companies, Pacific ports and refineries offered a place to send the massive amount of domestic crude oil that was unleashed during the North Dakota oil boom. New fracking techniques unlocked massive amounts of crude oil in North Dakota’s Bakken formation, and the United States did not have the infrastructure or capacity to move that oil from North Dakota to a place where it could be refined and ultimately sold.

So companies looked to railroads to help ship the huge amounts of crude oil coming from the Bakken formation — and the Pacific Northwest, with its geographic proximity to the oil fields of North Dakota, was instantly an appealing prospect for companies looking to move crude at the lowest cost. Rail companies built new cars to haul the oil, and oil companies began throwing their weight behind proposals for terminals along the Columbia River and Pacific coast that could help move the crude to refineries or market. As of last summer, some 15 oil refinery projects were either in planning stages, being built, or operating throughout the Northwest. If all of those projects were built to capacity, the Northwest rail system would see more than 100, mile-long oil trains each week traveling down its corridors.

The U.S. Has An Oil Train ProblemClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Transportation Safety Board of Canada Recipe for disaster: Put a flammable substance under…thinkprogress.orgAt first, no one thought that Bakken crude was a particularly dangerous cargo for trains to haul. But then a runaway oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, creating an explosive blaze that left 47 dead and destroyed the center of town. Inquiries into the accident — as well as follow-up investigations into the volatility of Bakken crude — discovered that the crude oil produced in North Dakota is actually much more flammable than most other types of oil. Since last spring, regulators have required oil companies to treat any Bakken crude shipped by rail in an effort to reduce its volatility. But that has not stopped the wave of derailments that have occurred for trains carrying oil or related products, with more than a dozen occurring in the U.S. and Canada over the past three years.

A community in opposition

The Mosier oil train derailment caused a fire that burned about a quarter of an acre of land. It caused an evacuation of nearby homes and the Mosier school, and sent a small amount of oil spilling into the Columbia River.

An aerial view of the derailment and fire. CREDIT: Columbia RiverKeeper

By all accounts, it was the best-case scenario a town along an oil train route could hope for in the event of a derailment. No homes or businesses burned, and no fatalities have been reported. But those familiar with oil trains know that communities won’t always be so lucky — Friday was a relatively calm day in the typically windy Columbia Gorge, which helped staunch the fire’s ability to spread.

“We were incredibly lucky with the weather,” Emily Reed, Mosier city council president, told ThinkProgress. “If this had been any other typical day in the Gorge, that west wind would have taken that fire down all 96 cars of fuel that line our town and completely obliterated our town, our community, our people. The risk is so much higher with these oil trains than with anything else. They are unsafe.”

Two years ago, the Mosier City Council passed a resolution expressing strong opposition to the practice of shipping crude oil through their town. And they aren’t alone — cities along the Columbia River, from Hood River to Portland, have voiced opposition to oil and coal trains. The city of Portland — located less than 70 miles West of Mosier — recently passed a resolution banning new fossil fuel infrastructure from being constructed within city limits.

“The tragedy is that the city of Mosier did everything they could have done to avoid a situation like they experienced on Friday,” Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, a senior organizer with Columbia RiverKeeper, told ThinkProgress. “They used the democratic process to pass a resolution, they have been active in public comment periods on fossil fuel transportation for years, their citizens are part of a broader, region-wide coalition. They’ve done everything right, and yet they still experienced this horrific tragedy in their community.”

An uncertain future for fossil fuels in the Pacific Northwest

Situations like the derailment in Mosier are clear illustrations of the limits to local action. Projects like the Vancouver oil-by-rail terminal, or the Longview coal export terminal, are ultimately decided at the state and federal level — and opponents of fossil fuel infrastructure are looking to high-level decision-makers, like Oregon’s Governor Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, to ring the final death knell for fossil fuel terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

“Governor Inslee has a very clear decision to make about the largest oil by rail facility proposed in Vancouver,” Serres said. “I don’t think that any decision-maker could look at what happened this week and come to the conclusion that these projects are a good idea for the Pacific Northwest, or anywhere.”

The long term answer is that we can’t have these oil trains coming into our communities. A temporary moratorium isn’t enough

In 2014, the City of Vancouver approved a resolution formally opposing the oil-by-rail terminal project. And, according to Serres, it is currently considering a resolution that would prohibit any new oil projects within the city.

But ultimately, the decision to move ahead with the project — or to deny the permits — will rest with the Port of Vancouver and Inslee. Brian Wolfe, Commissioner Vice President of the Port of Vancouver and a key swing decision for the oil terminal’s future, told a local news station after the Mosier spill that “it’s premature to come to conclusions” about how the Mosier derailment will impact the project’s future.

That lack of local power is frustrating, Mosier’s Reed told ThinkProgress, because the communities that are most at risk with regard to oil trains often have the least say.

“These decisions are not made on the town level of a population of 420. They’re not made at the state level. They are made that the federal level,” she said. “This needs to be addressed at the core. They need to understand the risks that we are taking, and it’s unacceptable.”

At a federal level, policies that ban or discourage the extraction and use of fossil fuels would help stem the tide of oil trains through the Pacific Northwest. The grassroots Keep It In The Ground Movement, which has inspired a bill in Congress, is perhaps the most ambitious iteration of the push to completely decarbonize the United States economy, though with the current political climate, its goals are unlikely to become law. Official responses like the Climate Action Plan or the Paris Agreement are more measured, though likely insufficient to completely stop the United States from using fossil fuels, at least in the near term.

Still, opponents to fossil fuel projects hope that the Mosier derailment will finally show decision makers that accidents associated with oil-by-rail transport are not a question of if, but when.

“If the Tersoro terminal [at the Port of Vancouver] is approved or denied, that will be the answer to did we learn from this mistake,” Zimmer-Stucky said. “The long term answer is that we can’t have these oil trains coming into our communities. A temporary moratorium isn’t enough. It needs to be a permanent moratorium for oil trains coming not just through Mosier, but all cities.”