Oil sheen spotted on Columbia River after Tacoma-bound oil train erupts in flames
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 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.
By Saturday morning, an oil sheen was spotted on the Columbia River near the accident site. Teams with the Washington Department of Ecology placed booms in the river to contain the spill.
Ecology officials describe the sheen as small and said they were taking water samples. Officials also said the fire is now out, and there are no air quality issues.
Officials from several agencies involved in the crash response and cleanup held a press conference Saturday morning, including an update on the oil spill in the Columbia River.
All the cars on the train traveling to Tacoma, Washington, from Eastpoint, Idaho, were carrying Bakken oil, which is more flammable than other varieties because it has a higher gas content and vapor pressure and lower flash point.
The accident immediately drew reaction from environmentalists who said oil should not be transported by rail, particularly along a river that is a hub of recreation and commerce.
"Moving oil by rail constantly puts our communities and environment at risk," said Jared Margolis, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Eugene, Oregon.
It wasn't immediately clear if oil had seeped into the river or what had caused the derailment. No injuries were reported.
Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for the railroad, did not know how fast the train was traveling at the time, but witnesses said it was going slowly as it passed the town of Mosier, Oregon, about 70 miles east of Portland.
Response teams were using a drone to assess the damage, said Katherine Santini, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service. Crews were working to suppress the fire, which they expected to continue doing into the night.
Officials in Mosier closed about 23 miles of Interstate 84 and evacuated a half-mile radius around the spill, including 200 school children who were later picked up by their parents and 50 homes in a mobile home park.
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 told The Associated Press as smoke billowed 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 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 told The Associated Press.
He also drove to the overpass and saw the cars flipped over before a fire started and he called 911.
"The train wasn't going very fast. It would have been worse if it had been faster," said Shurton, who runs a wind surfing business in nearby Hood River.
Matt Lehner, a spokesman from the Federal Railroad Administration, said a team of investigators had arrived at the scene from Vancouver, Washington.
Union Pacific said 11 cars had derailed, but a spokesman from the Oregon Department of Forestry, which helped extinguish the blaze, said 12 cars had been involved. The discrepancy could not immediately be resolved.
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.
The derailment of an oil train in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge follows a string of fiery accidents in the U.S. and Canada as shipments of crude by rail have increased with more domestic oil production:
-- July 5, 2013: A runaway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train that had been left unattended derailed, spilling oil and catching fire inside the town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec. Forty-seven people were killed and 30 buildings burned in the town's center. About 1.6 million gallons of oil was spilled. The oil was being transported from the Bakken region of North Dakota, the heart of an oil fracking boom, to a refinery in Canada.
-- Nov. 8, 2013: An oil train from North Dakota derailed and exploded near Aliceville, Alabama. There were no deaths, but an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil spilled from 26 tanker cars.
-- Dec. 30, 2013: A fire engulfed tank cars loaded with oil on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train after a collision about a mile from Casselton, North Dakota. No one was injured, but more than 2,000 residents were evacuated as emergency responders struggled with the intense fire.
-- Jan. 7, 2014: A 122-car Canadian National Railway train derailed in New Brunswick, Canada. Three cars containing propane and one car transporting crude oil from western Canada exploded after the derailment, creating intense fires that burned for days. About 150 residents were evacuated.
-- Jan. 20, 2014: Seven CSX train cars, six of them containing oil from the Bakken region, derailed on a bridge over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The bridge is near the University of Pennsylvania, a highway and three hospitals. No oil was spilled and no one was injured. The train from Chicago was more than 100 cars long.
-- April 30, 2014: Fifteen cars of a crude oil train derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, near a railside eatery and a pedestrian waterfront, sending flames and black smoke into the air. Nearly 30,000 gallons of oil were spilled into the James River.
-- Feb. 14, 2015: A 100-car Canadian National Railway train hauling crude oil and petroleum distillates derailed in a remote part of Ontario, Canada. The blaze it ignited burned for days.
-- Feb. 16, 2015: A 109-car CSX oil train derailed and caught fire near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning a house to its foundation. The blaze burned for most of week.
-- March 10, 2015: Twenty-one cars of a 105-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe train hauling oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota derailed about 3 miles outside Galena, Illinois, a town of about 3,000 in the state's northwest corner.
-- March 7, 2015: A 94-car Canadian National Railway crude oil train derailed about 3 miles outside the northern Ontario town of Gogama. The resulting fire destroyed a bridge. The accident was 23 miles from the Feb. 14 derailment.
-- May 6, 2015: A 109-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe crude oil train derails near Heimdal, North Dakota. Six cars exploded into flames and an estimated 60,000 gallons of oil spilled.
-- July 16, 2015: More than 20 cars from a 108-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil train derailed east of Culbertson, Montana, spilling an estimated 35,000 gallons of oil.
---- Nov. 7, 2015: More than a dozen cars loaded with crude oil derail from a Canadian Pacific Railway train prompting the evacuation of dozens of homes near Watertown, Wisconsin.