PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A train towing a highly volatile type of oil derailed Friday in Oregon’s scenic Columbia River Gorge, igniting a fire that sent a plume of black smoke high into the sky and spurring evacuations and road closures.
Including Friday’s accident, at least 26 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, according to Associated Press analysis of accident records from the two countries.
The worst was a 2013 derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Damage from that accident has been estimated at $1.2 billion or higher.
At least 12 of the oil trains that derailed were carrying crude from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region — fuel that is known for being highly volatile. Of those, eight resulted in fires.
Since last spring, North Dakota regulators have required companies to treat oil before it’s shipped by rail to make it less combustible.
A May 2015 derailment near Heimdal, North Dakota, involved cars carrying oil that had been treated to reduce the volatility, but the crude still ignited. At least one train wreck involving treated Bakken oil did not result in a fire, when 22 cars derailed and 35,000 gallons of oil spilled near Culbertson, Montana, last July.
Reducing the explosiveness of the crude moved by rail was not supposed to be a cure-all to prevent accidents. Department of Transportation rules imposed last year require companies to use stronger tank cars that are better able to withstand derailments.
But tens of thousands of outdated tank cars that are prone to split open during accidents remain in use.
It’s expected to take years for them to be retrofitted or replaced.
Hunt, the Union Pacific spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether the Bakken oil in Friday’s derailment had been treated to reduce volatility. It also wasn’t clear if the tank cars in the accident had been retrofitted under the new rules.
To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil trains move through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia; Seattle; Chicago; Newark, New Jersey; and dozens of other cities, according to railroad disclosures filed with regulators.
Associated Press Writers Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana; Steven Dubois in Portland, Oregon and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.