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On June 3, 2016, a 96-car Union Pacific train loaded with crude oil originating from the Bakken Shale region was headed to a refinery in Tacoma, Washington. The train derailed on the route, causing a fire, an oil spill, and serious disruption to rural Mosier, Oregon (population 433).
Interstate 84 was closed. Mosier’s wastewater treatment plant and the Columbia River were inundated with leaking crude oil. Residents of the small town were evacuated.
Though no lives were lost, residents of the area say the Mosier derailment demonstrates the serious risks posed by rail transport of fossil fuels through the area.
“We really feel like the whole region dodged a bullet at Mosier last year,” said Paul Blackburn, mayor of Hood River just a few miles west of Mosier. “There were kids standing at the windows of the schoolhouse, just a few hundred feet away. They were looking out over the fire. Thank God it wasn’t windy that day.”
Blackburn’s town, and the Columbia River Gorge region more broadly, is known as the “windsurfing capital of the world” due to its normally high wind-speeds and access to open water. The region’s economy is highly diversified featuring agriculture from local fruit orchards, grape production, fishing, water-based recreation, manufacturing, and tourism.
“The Mosier derailment is a pinch point of a bigger issue. It’s a sign of what could happen up and down the Gorge if more of these giant trains, full of toxic and highly flammable oil, are allowed to keep passing through our communities,” Blackburn said.
Mayor Blackburn will be joining other Columbia River Gorge residents, elected officials, public health professionals, and tribal leaders in Mosier tomorrow to explain their concerns about oil trains moving through their communities. The rail-based shipping corridor could see an increase in oil traffic if the proposed Tesoro Savage oil terminal is built downstream at Vancouver, Washington.
“We have taken a very, very strong and firm stance against fossil fuel trains,” said Rebecca Sanchey of the Yakama Nation. “We have seen what the fossil fuel trains can do to the environment, and also to our people. We are worried about diesel discharge, coal dust, even the burning of coal.”
Sanchey says that the Yakama people’s use of the area presents significant dangers. “Our fishermen are in danger. Their access to the river, their closeness to the rail routes, puts our people at great risk. We also have cultural sites up and down the River. Our Native foods, the salmon, our medicines and roots, our restoration efforts. An oil spill would wipe all of this away.”
“The Mosier oil train derailment took all of the tribes’ fears and moved them from theory to reality,” said Sara Thompson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. She said that Tribes have been opposed to oil projects like the Tesoro Savage terminal, “from the beginning because of their risks to the Columbia River, to the salmon, to the health of their communities.”
Critics of the fossil fuel trains will be busy telling their stories in the short term. Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expected to make a final decision on the 360,000 barrel per day terminal, which is moving through the state’s permitting process, in the coming months. If approved, the Tesoro Savage project will become the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal.