by Dr. Paul Rea, PhD
On Friday June 3, a “unit” train of 96 tank cars, all of them carrying Bakken crude oil, derailed just outside Mosier, Oregon. According to Progressive Railroading, 16 of the 96 cars derailed and 4 of them ruptured, catching fire and spilling 42,000 gallons of oil. All of the tankers were the new and supposedly safer 1132 models (http://www.progressiverailroading.com/union_pacific/news/Rail-fastener-may-have-caused-UP-train-derailment-report-says--48484).
Bakken is a light crude from North Dakota with a high gas content, leading to greater vapor pressure and higher flammability than most oils. While the amount of oil initially reaching in the River itself was apparently small, the presence of crude oil was very substantial in both the water and the sewage treatment plants of Mosier.
Now the tiny town must deal with its second oil spill from the railroad—this time one of 42,000 gallons, with 10,000 gallons clogging its sewage plant. The town’s sewerage now goes right into the Columbia. Some of the oil remains in wastewater lines; most of it will also likely end up in the River (KPFA “Evening News” 6.6.16).
The rest of the oil burned off, evaporated in the heat, soaked into the soil, or was skimmed off by oil booms in the Columbia, according to Judy Smith, EPA spokeswoman. It's not clear how much of the oil was actually captured (http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2016/06/after_oil_train_derailment_im.html).
Had more of the spilled crude oil reached the River, serious and permanent damage to wildlife, recreation, water quality, and water supplies could have reached catastrophic proportions. The potential for long-term damage was under-reported, however. Neither government nor media sources emphasized the fact that the Columbia provides drinking water for several million people.
Political Pressure with No or Limited Effect
US News reported that while the fires still raged, Mosier city officials promptly passed an emergency motion calling on Union Pacific (UP) to remove all oil from the damaged cars before its line was reopened. But UP just pushed the disabled cars aside, laid new track, and restarted operations. By Sunday June 5, the railroad was running more trains through the town; residents shot video of trains rumbling past crumpled and burnt oil tankers, some of them still leaking oil onto the tracks (http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2016-06-06/oregon-residents-return-home-following-oil-train-derailment).
Questions of environmental justice arouse, since Mosier is a low-income community and about half of the residents at Mosier Manor are Latino.
Political pressure from high-ranking officials did have more effect. UP announced it would temporarily suspend oil trains through the Columbia River Gorge after Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici called for a moratorium. These Oregon officials demanded that Union Pacific not resume oil train traffic until the company thoroughly explained the cause of the derailment and provides assurances it's taking steps to prevent another one. However, the officials stopped short of calling for limiting other train traffic (http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2016/06/after_oil_train_derailment_im.html).
Establishing Cause and Accountability for the Wreck
According to The Oregonian, a preliminary investigation showed a failure with a bolt that fastens the rails to the railroad ties caused the crash, said Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs (http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2016/06/after_oil_train_derailment_im.html).
However, statements about what caused the oil-train wreck indicate how railroads evade responsibility for derailments posing serious danger to public health and safety, as well as to the environment.
Herb Krohn, legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the union that represents workers on the train, said the derailment occurred 18 cars back from the front of the train, on relatively straight track. “Generally with a derailment happens that far back from the head of a train, it is caused by equipment failure rather than human error,” Krohn explained (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/oil-train-derails-in-columbia-river-gorge/).
Advancing a parallel hypothesis, UP claimed “some sort of track failure” had caused the wreck, although the track had been inspected “at least six times since March 21.” The last inspection took place just three days before the accident (Washington State Dept. of Ecology via AP, 6.5.16). An Oregon Department of Transportation rail safety inspector had examined the tracks in late April, finding 30 defects. Deficiencies included loose bolts and braces, but violations were not triggered and nothing was done (http://nebula.wsimg.com/49f255caecebf98121450b89dfa58450).
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that most derailments occur on track that has been “regularly or recently inspected” but where no repairs have been made. This neglect has to raise questions about the safety of aging bridges, trestles, and tunnels.
UP did not indicate that track inspections had revealed structural problems—and that the railroad apparently did nothing to rectify the deficiencies. Railroads have a tendency to generically blame “track failure” as though track condition, extreme train length, and the extraordinary weight of oil trains were not factors they control. Railroads take no responsibility for the delayed maintenance and crumbling infrastructure they enable.
According to Railway Age, “Just three weeks before the UP derailment, approximately 150 environmental activists blockaded a BNSF track leading to Shell and Tesoro oil refineries near Anacortes, Wash. These were led by the “Raging Grannies,” elderly women who pitched tents on the tracks. The three-day protest coincided with similar anti-oil events in Los Angeles; Albany, N.Y.; and Washington D.C.” (http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/news/up-bakken-crude-oil-train-derails-in-oregon.html).
In the short term, the most likely outcome will be that railroads will defy public and government pleas to improve safety and increasingly blame accidents on sabotage by opponents to their dangerous oil and coal trains.
Paul W. Rea, Ph.D., is a researcher, writer and filmmaker who lives in Newark California