Firefighters and hazardous materials responders arrived on the scene shortly after 11 of the train’s 96 cars left the tracks at 12:20 p.m. local time. Several of those tank cars ignited, sending huge plumes of black smoke into the air just outside of the small Oregon town.
No injuries or significant property damage have been reported, but environmental officials continue to work to contain and clean an oil sheen on the Columbia River. The Federal Railroad Administration said officials from the both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard are on the scene, and that access remains limited as the smoldering train cars continue to cool, but did not comment further on the incident.
UP official Raquel Espinoza said Sunday the derailment was likely caused by track failure, but cautioned that more investigation is required, according to reports from the Associated Press. Espinoza said the issue most likely originated with the fastener between the railroad tie and the line itself.
The railway inspects the tracks that run through Mosier twice a week, with the most recent inspection taking place May 31, she added. UP failed to find any issues with the section of track on which the train derailed during a detailed technical inspection at the end of April.
Espinoza said the railroad’s primary concern is removing the crude oil as safely and quickly as possible to avoid any potential environmental damage and allow evacuated residents to return to their homes.
“We're doing everything we can to get you back home, but we're not going to risk your safety," she said at a news conference.
Asked about the cost of firefighting and cleanup, which UP has already committed to pay, Espinoza said, “I don't know and it doesn't matter. Our priority here is bringing people home. Nothing else matters.”
Since Friday, around 100 people — roughly 25 percent of the town's population — have been evacuated from their homes in an quarter mile radius around the site of the incident. UP said a water treatment system that runs under that section of track was damaged in the incident and will have to be repaired before residents can return.
Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton on Sunday said the derailment and resulting fire could have been a lot worse. He told Oregon Public Broadcasting that after many years of trying to reassure his town that UP’s safety record shows this type of rail accident is a rare occurrence, he’s switched sides.
According to Appleton, the wind in Mosier was unusually still at the time of the incident and if it had been closer the 25-mph average speed for the area, the fire could have completely destroyed the town and spread for miles.
“My attention was focused on the incident that didn't happen,” he said. “It probably would have burned its way close to Omaha, Nebraska. That's how big it would have been.
“If the same derailment had happened just 24 hours earlier, there would have been 35 mph gusts blowing the length of the train. The fire very easily could have spread to some or all of the 96 cars behind, because they were in the line of the prevailing wind. That would have been a catastrophe.”
“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” added Appleton. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, 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.”
The train was en route from Eastport, Idaho to Tacoma, Wash. carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation, which is more flammable and dangerous than other types of crude. Similar trains have been involved in several destructive derailments in recent years, the largest of which claimed the lives of 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013.
Due to the higher gas content and vapor pressure and lower flash point of Bakken crude, emergency response to such incidents requires specialized equipment, including large quantities of fire suppression foam.
According to Appleton, however, firefighters were unable to use the foam for at least 10 hours after the Mosier derailment because the fire was burning too hot.
“The rationale that was explained to me by the Union Pacific fire personnel is that the metal is too hot, and the foam will land on the white-hot metal and evaporate without any suppression effect,” he said. “That was kind of an eye-opener for me.”
Appleton said crews spent 8 to 10 hours cooling down white-hot rail cars with roughly 1,500 gallons of water per minute before the last of the cars still burning was cool enough to be extinguished using the firefighting foam.
Mayor Arlene Burns, echoed that sentiment, saying the people of Mosier were “incredibly lucky” despite some damage to essential city services.
“I count myself lucky that we dodged a bullet,” Burns said, noting that her own child was at school within a few blocks of the derailment. “We hope that this is a wake-up call.”
“I am grateful to local first responders, HazMat teams, and other state agencies for doing their best to keep the community of Mosier safe,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Friday. “I am closely monitoring the situation and ready to make every state resource available as needed. I ask that travelers seek alternate routes away from this area until further notice. The Oregon Department of Transportation will provide continuous updates on travel conditions.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee went a step further, saying, “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.”
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called the incident a “dangerous and tragic event” that is “causing significant air pollution and health concerns for the area.”
“Thankfully, no fatalities have been reported, and we hope that those involved in the crash, first responders, and people in the surrounding community remain safe...I hope that all safety and environmental concerns can be minimized,” he said in a statement Friday.
“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,” added Blumenauer.
“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.
“Without change, this will happen again,” he said. “These risks are unacceptable, and we must take action to prevent them.”
The Senate in May unanimously passed the Railroad Emergency Services Preparedness, Operational Needs, and Safety Evaluation (RESPONSE) Act, which aims to provide additional training for first responders, specifically for handling freight train derailments that include hazardous materials such as crude oil.
Originally sponsored by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., the legislation establishes a public-private council of emergency responders, federal agencies and industry stakeholders tasked with reviewing current training methods and prescribing best practices for first responders to Congress. The council will be co-chaired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., has introduced a companion bill to the RESPONSE Act in the House of Representatives.