Oregon train derailment spills oil, sparks fire

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

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — An oil train has derailed near the Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier.

Aaron Hunt with Union Pacific Railroad says 11 of the cars derailed. Oil spilled from at least one car and caught fire. It is still burning.

The 96-car 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.

Randy Russ is the Oregon State Legislative Director for SMART Transportation Division. He says 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 has 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. There is no estimate to when I-84 will reopen.

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.

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.”

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.”

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