A train loaded with crude oil derailed and burst into flames on Friday in Oregon, forcing the evacuation of a small town and spilling oil into the Columbia River.
The Union Pacific train jumped the rails near the town of Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland. Fourteen of the train's cars derailed and four caught fire, sending a thick, billowing plume of black smoke over the picturesque surroundings. It took firefighters nearly 10 hours to extinguish the blaze.
Around 400 residents of Mosier were evacuated after emergency responders warned that the crude oil tankers could explode. A school was also evacuated and a highway was temporarily closed. About 300 residents were given the all-clear to return to their homes on Saturday afternoon, but they were instructed not to use the shower, flush the toilet, or allow any running water to go down the drain. Around 100 people remain displaced.
"I am closely monitoring the situation and ready to make every state resource available as needed,'' Oregon Governor Kate Brown said in a statement. "I ask that travelers seek alternate routes away from this area until further notice.''
A small oil sheen appeared on the Columbia River near the site of the train wreck, prompting concerns about the environmental impact on spring salmon migration, which is currently at its peak in the region. Officials tweeted that crews from the Washington Department of Ecology worked overnight on Saturday to contain the oil sheen and protect the river. They also installed an oil containment boom — a temporary floating barrier — to contain the spill in Rock Creek, a tributary on the Washington side of the river.
Friday's incident was the first crash of a so-called "bomb train" so far this year, but oil train derailments have been on the rise recently. In 2014, the US produced more oil than it had in 100 years, leading to more oil than ever before being transported by rail across Canada and and the US. More than 400,000 train cars carrying oil moved around the US last year, up from just 5,000 in 2006, according to the Oregonian. The paper said 19,000 of those tankers passed through Oregon in 2015, a 250 percent increase from the previous year.
In 2015, there were seven oil train derailments, including one particularly severe incident in West Virginia where an explosion destroyed a home, forced the evacuation of 1,000 people, and prompted the governor to declare a state of emergency. Officials later determined that a faulty rail was to blame for the crash.
Another derailment in Wisconsin last November spilled about 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River. The following day, a separate derailment spilled about 1,000 gallons of crude oil into the Mississippi. Last July, a crude oil train explosion in Quebec, Canada killed 47 people. Massive blasts also occurred in Alabama, North Dakota and Virginia.
The type of crude oil carried by the trains is extremely volatile. The Oregonian found that much of the oil being shipped through the state contains more butane and six times more propane than comparable types of crude. Producers can stabilize the oil by burning off the gasses prior to shipment, but they aren't required by law to do so, and the precaution cuts into profits by reducing the volume of the oil. Tanker train cars can carry up to 30,000 gallons of oil.
The clean-up from oil train derailments can be costly. A Bloomberg analysis of federal data found that authorities spent $26.7 million cleaning up spills from oil trains, compared to just $7.5 million in 2014.
Oregon is one of just four US states where lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making crude-by-rail transport safer, allocating funds to coordinating response plans for accidents.
Worn rails are increasingly a source of concern, particularly with rising amount of freight train traffic. The Federal Railroad Authority is planning to draft rules for worn-out rails, but faces fierce resistance from the freight railroad industry, according to an investigation by Public Source. The Associated Press confirmed in December that the industry is opposed to federal regulation, which would likely mandate expensive and time-consuming replacement of worn out rails.
"Seeing our beautiful Columbia River Gorge on fire today should be a wake-up call for federal and state agencies — underscoring the need to complete comprehensive environmental reviews of oil-by-rail in the Pacific Northwest," Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer said in a statement on Friday. "This also illustrates the need for safer rail transport and better preparedness for disasters such as these. Oregon fire departments are on record saying they don't have the resources to deal with oil train fires."
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