Oil train derails, burns in Columbia River Gorge

The accident happened around noon Friday

An oil train derailed near Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, June 3, 2016 (Steven Erspamer)
An oil train derailed near Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, June 3, 2016 (Steven Erspamer)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — 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 into the sky and spurring evacuations and road closures.

Eleven cars derailed Friday in the 96-car Union Pacific train and the railroad said several caught fire. The crash released oil alongside tracks that parallel the Columbia River near Mosier.

The fire was extinguished overnight but access to the site remains limited as the area is still cooling, said Matthew Lehner of the Federal Railroad Association. The evacuation remains in place, but he said it’s expected to be lifted sometime Saturday.

The train was carrying Bakken crude oil to Tacoma, from Eastport, Idaho. Bakken crude is known for being highly volatile because it has a higher gas content and vapor pressure and lower flash point than other varieties.

A train that size weighs 13,000 tons and is 6,200 feet long, according to sources. It derailed in a 30 MPH zone. No one was injured.

Bakken crude oil comes from the “Bakken Formation,” which stretches across North Dakota, Montana and parts of Canada. There has been a dramatic increase in oil production in that area, earning it the nickname “Boomtown, USA.”

New hydraulic fracturing technology has lead to a surge in oil output, and more oil means more oil transportation, mostly by rail.

Randy Russ, the Oregon State Legislative Director for SMART Transportation Division, said the crew was in “normal operations through that area” when they “felt a little bump-tug [and] the train went into emergency.”

The derailment happened about 20 cars back from the head of the train.

An oil train derailed near Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, June 3, 2016 (Steven Erspamer)
An oil train derailed near Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, June 3, 2016 (Steven Erspamer)

Russ says Union Pacific has a maintenance schedule and is currently doing a rail replacement program between Mosier and Crates in The Dalles.

Russ says he himself went through that area Thursday with no problems. He knows the engineer and says he is very experienced.

There was also a conductor on board. Their names haven’t been released.

Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs expressed apologies to the Mosier community and the state of Oregon for the inconvenience the incident caused.

The coast guard has surveyed the area and the Washington Department of Ecology says as of now, there are no signs of any oil making its way into the river.

Witness accounts

Silas Bleakley was working at his restaurant in Mosier when the train derailed.

“You could feel it through the ground. It was more of a feeling than a noise,” he said as smoke continued to billow from the tankers.

Bleakley said he went outside, saw the smoke and got in his truck and drove about 2,000 feet to a bridge that crosses the railroad tracks. There, he said he saw tanker cars “accordioned” across the tracks.

Another witness, Brian Shurton, was driving in Mosier and watching the train as it passed by the town when he heard a tremendous noise.

“All of a sudden, I heard ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ like dominoes,” he said.

An aerial view of an oil train derailment in Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, June 3, 2016 (KOIN)
An aerial view of an oil train derailment in Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge, June 3, 2016 (KOIN)

He, too, drove to the bridge overpass to look down and saw the cars flipped over before a fire started in one of the cars and he called 911, he said.

“The train wasn’t going very fast. It would have been worse if it had been faster,” said Shurton, who runs a windsurfing business in nearby Hood River.

Video courtesy of Silas Bleakley.

Smoke can also be seen from a nearby weather skycam and from the KOIN 6 web cam at Skamania Lodge.

Traffic impacts

The Oregon Department of Transportation closed I-84 between Cascade Locks and The Dalles. Because of heavy congestion on SR 14 in Washington, ODOT is asking eastbound drivers to take Highway 35 to Highway 26 to Highway 216 then to Highway 97 and back to I-84. Westbound drivers should take 197 south to Highway 216 to Highway 26.

ODOT reopened I-84 between Hood River and The Dalles around 11 p.m. Friday night. Ramps at Mosier will remain closed until further notice.

Traffic is snarled on I-84 due to a train derailment, June 3, 2016 (KOIN)
Traffic is snarled on I-84 due to a train derailment, June 3, 2016 (KOIN)

About 200 students at Mosier Elementary School were evacuated and transported to Wahtonka High School, according to school officials.

At Horizon Christian school in Hood River, buses aren’t being sent to pick kids up. Students are being held at the school until the situation improves.

An air quality alert has been issued for Hood River, Bingen, White Salmon and the surrounding areas because of the smoke. People with respiratory issues like asthma or lung disease should stay indoors.

The Federal Railroad Administration says it has investigators on scene. Portland Airport Fire & Rescue is also headed to the Gorge to supply aid. They are taking a specialized truck that carries about 1,300 gallons of fire suppression foam.

NTSB investigators are gathering information but haven’t launched a team and Gresham Fire has sent its hazmat team.

Evacuation

Residents of the Mosier Manor mobile home park, which is adjacent to the train tracks, were evacuated within 30 minutes of the derailment according to Dan Hammill, division chief for Mid Columbia Fire and Rescue. There are about 50 units in that park.

Homes within a quarter mile of the site were on a level 3 evacuation, while homes beyond that point are at level 2.

The Red Cross is setting up an emergency shelter in The Dalles for those affected. The shelter is at Dry Hollow Elementary School, 12214 E. 19th St.

A security detail has been established around the evacuated neighborhood. They will be checking IDs of people going into the area, although at this time, no one is allowed in.

The Washington Department of Ecology has crews on the scene and say they do not see signs of oil in the river. The US Coast Guard is flying a helicopter over the scene to assess environmental damage.

Governor Kate Brown released a statement saying she is “grateful to local first responders, HazMat teams, and other state agencies for doing their best to keep the community of Mosier safe.”

“I’m very pleased to see the quick response that we saw,” Brown said in a press conference Friday evening.

She said it is “horrific” to have something like this happen anywhere, especially somewhere as beautiful as the Colombia River gorge.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee also issued a statement: “Today’s derailment of a train carrying Bakken crude oil in the Columbia River Gorge is yet another reminder of the risks and concerns of crude-by-rail transport in our region. I join Gov. Brown in commending the swift response from Oregon’s public safety and transportation officials.”

Brown also said accidents like this always warrant investigations, and she is confident there will be one.

Teams are working to remove the cars that have no been affected by the derailment. Union Pacific crews have put sorbent booms across Rock Creek and another at the mouth of the creek in the river to protect the waterways.

Crews will cool derailed rail cars overnight, and once they are cooled enough, they will put foam on the burning cars to suppress the fire.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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