Oregon oil train explosion fuels growing opposition movement

Some activists see the Pacific Northwest as a major new front in the climate fight.


Tucked against the steep forests and cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge on Oregon’s northern border, the town of Mosier is a modest collection of wooden homes and narrow streets that climb through oaks and droop-topped Douglas fir. From Mosier’s heart, the vast Columbia itself is invisible beyond a screen of trees, Interstate 84, and an increasingly crowded set of railroad tracks. It’s surprisingly quiet here on a sweltering Sunday in June. Though the population is just shy of 450, “town’s usually very busy,” resident Sandra Parksion tells me from a camp chair in the shade, where she sits beside her adult grandson, Adrian Stranz. “There are a lot of bicyclists. Hikers. Joggers. You name it. (Now) you don't see anybody wandering around. You don't hear kids hollering and playing.”

There’s also no wind this weekend, a notable absence in the Gorge, where the bluster often clocks in around 25 to 35 miles per hour. And that, some residents and local officials speculate, may be the only reason why Mosier’s still standing.

Around noon the previous Friday, part of a Union Pacific train carrying 96 tanker cars of highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed just below Mosier’s I-84 exit overpass, 16 cars folding together in a great clanking din. Four exploded into a blaze that shot flames up to 50 feet in the air and smeared the sky with greasy, black smoke that was visible for miles.

No one was injured and only 42,000 gallons were spilled or vaporized, a tiny fraction of the total amount of oil aboard. Still, the conflagration underscored the fears of oil-train opponents, who have long warned that a boom in the transport of oil by rail through the region that began in 2012 threatens countless communities along the tracks, as well as the Columbia River itself  – the largest salmon fishery in the Lower 48. More than a dozen similar disasters have taken place around the U.S. and Canada since 2013, but Mosier’s is the first serious oil train accident in the Pacific Northwest.

The timing couldn’t be worse for already struggling fossil fuel shippers, coming in the midst of an intensifying local backlash and a movement that has lately racked up significant victories against liquid natural gas and coal export terminals proposed along the coast. “In any rational universe, it’s the end of oil trains in the Northwest,” says Eric de Place, policy director for Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based progressive think tank. “But do we live in a rational universe? We’ll see.”

The steep, rugged Gorge is a terrible place for accidents: Major transportation routes are often pinched between cliffs and river, with few alternate paths. When the Mosier train blew, it closed the interstate and backed up traffic for hours on narrow bridges and winding rural roads, making access hard for emergency responders and residents alike. Parksion, who is resting just outside the Union Pacific claims trailer where she collected a hotel voucher for some air conditioning and a Safeway gift card to help feed her parakeets, was among those immediately evacuated from the nearby Mosier Manor mobile home park. When I meet her, she hasn’t been allowed to return home yet. “Somebody came to the door and said, ‘Get out now,’” Parksion says, “and that was it.”

The Mosier Community School, which was also evacuated, is perhaps 500 feet from the tracks. Volunteer firefighter Charles Young, whose eight-year-old son is a student there, had a hard time escaping visions of the wind coming up and “each train car popping one after the next for a mile, taking out the entire town.”

Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton expressed similar fears, after seeing just how hard the blaze was to extinguish. Even with a foam truck from the Portland airport and some 15 separate fire departments responding, the fire took until 2 a.m. on Saturday to extinguish. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “But with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

A car from a derailed oil train lies in the sun as workers clean up after the train caught on fire in Mosier, Oregon.
Sarah Gilman

At a press conference on Saturday, the railroad issued a formal apology to Mosier, the state of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, and promised to pay for the cost of firefighting. Spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza also noted that the company has helped train more than 2,000 Oregon first responders since 2010.

Luck is the wrong word, but it’s not a stretch to say things could have been much, much worse. A similar disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec involving older tanker cars killed 47 residents. “That's what we’ve been worrying about for the last couple of years,” Young says. “The question for me is, who’s getting the benefit for this risk? It sure as hell isn’t Mosier.”

That kind of sentiment is increasingly common in the Northwest, which is politically much less friendly to extraction than the interior West. Facing supply gluts and price crashes for Rockies and High Plains oil and natural gas, energy companies have pushed a raft of export terminal proposals along the West Coast, where they see access to new markets and higher returns. And coal companies, squeezed by cheap natural gas and new regulations, have done the same, hoping international business will stop a slide into insolvency.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which has been concerned about how expanded fossil fuel rail traffic will impact fishermen safety and tribal treaty fishing rights, is now tracking some 17 proposed and operating coal and oil terminals and refineries.

And the Sightline Institute has estimated the collective carbon impact of proposed coal, oil and natural gas facilities and pipelines in the Northwest at five times that of the Keystone XL Pipeline. With that project on the outs, many activists see the Northwest as the next big front in the U.S. climate fight.

To get a more concrete idea of the potential scale of increase, consider that Union Pacific has reported that it runs about three oil trains per month through the Columbia River Gorge. A proposed oil terminal on the Columbia in Vancouver, Washington, could handle five such trains per day, or some 360,000 barrels. A proposed coal terminal in nearby Longview, Washington, has capacity for seven or eight trains per day.

Given the volume, “this (derailment) was not a surprise,” says Jeremy Red Star Wolf, Vice Chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and current chair of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The incident, he adds, has only galvanized the resolve of the Fish Commission's four member tribes to protect the river.

Scattered and burned oil tank cars after they derailed on near Mosier, Oregon. Union Pacific Railroad says it had recently inspected the section of track near Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland.
Courtesy Columbia Riverkeeper

Some 300,000 people have commented on proposals in Washington this year, says Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, a grassroots group that has worked with several communities to fight terminal projects. Because the infrastructure proposals clash with more than just environmental values – threatening safety, homes, recreation and other industries – the coalition of opponents is broad, from tribes to labor unions to artsy anarchists to small town politicians to a former energy executive who moved to the Northwest to grow flowers. Grandmothers have chained themselves to train tracks. Greenpeace activists have dangled from bridges. “The pressure is building,” Serres says. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it, in terms of the diversity of people calling on state leaders to turn projects down.”

And they’re gaining some ground. This spring, the Army Corps of Engineers effectively killed a coal export terminal near Bellingham, Washington, because of potential impacts to the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights. And last month, more than 200 people gathered in Astoria, Oregon, for a potluck and dance to celebrate the withdrawal of a liquid natural gas export terminal proposal in nearby Warrenton, following a 12-year fight.

It’s unclear how the Mosier derailment will affect Washington’s ongoing permitting processes for the Vancouver terminal. But Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, both Oregon senators and two Oregon House representatives have called for a moratorium on oil train traffic through the Columbia River Gorge until Union Pacific has a clear explanation for what caused the crash.

“A cynic might say it won’t change,” says Eric Quaempts, fisheries director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “But the early signs are that it’s increased awareness and maybe the landscape will shift.”

While Union Pacific has so far agreed to keep oil trains out of Mosier in the aftermath, it’s worked quickly to get regular rail service back up for its other customers.

In town on Sunday, the twisted tanker cars sit in an orderly line along one side of the tracks. They’re just visible from the white-and-magenta, two-story school, which has been pressed into service as an impromptu incident command center, housing 60 or 70 people from the multiple local, state, and federal agencies involved in cleanup.

Signs on the doors warn residents to boil their water and avoid using drains or flushing toilets, because the crash damaged the sewage treatment plant. White trailers, tents and spill-response trucks line the lawn, and sheriff’s deputies man a safety checkpoint beside a farmer’s market sign. Beyond the equipment and a tangle of greenery, a hive of workers in orange safety vests and hard hats labor in hundred-degree heat to lay new rails, ties and ballast. By nightfall on the day of my visit, they will have freight trains running slowly past the yet-to-be-drained oil cars, over the oil-soaked ground, and against the wishes of Mosier City Council. Union Pacific insists that the operation is safe. “The community is at the forefront of our efforts,” spokesman Justin Jacobs told the Associated Press.  “We're absolutely aware of their concerns.”

Yet residents remain wary.

“I do not want to see another big catastrophe right off the bat,” says Acting Mayor Emily Reed, Young’s wife, looking toward the construction from the schoolyard. Oil trains haven’t been a major focus for her before, Reed says with a tight laugh. “I’ll probably be more active now ... I already am.”

Parksion’s nervous, too. “This morning, out of my daughter's front window, I was watching the railroad tracks across the river,” she says. Those ones don’t belong to Union Pacific. “I saw a train go by with I don't know how many of those oil tankers. And I kept thinking, ‘Oooh, boy. Please, Lord.’”

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News contributing editor based in Portland, Oregon. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman.

This article has been updated to reflect Jeremy Red Star Wolf's full title.

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