Source: Washington Department of Ecology via AP Photos

Oil Sheen Seen on River After Oregon Crude-Train Derailment

  • Washington state officials detect film on Columbia, AP says
  • Union Pacific was hauling Bakken cargo from North Dakota

Environmental officials worked to contain a small sheen of oil on the Columbia River on Saturday after a Union Pacific Corp. train carrying a load of Bakken crude derailed near Mosier, Oregon, according to the company.

Access to the site remains limited as the train continues to cool off following a fire that broke out after Friday’s accident, the Federal Railroad Administration said Saturday in a Twitter post. No injuries were reported after 16 of the 96 cars on the train came off the tracks near the river, which forms most of the border between Washington state and Oregon.

The Washington state Ecology Department conducted a flyover to assess the extent of the sheen on the river, the Associated Press reported. The FRA had said earlier Saturday that there were no reports of oil on the river from the train, which originated in Eastport, Idaho, and was carrying crude from North Dakota to Tacoma, Washington, south of Seattle.

Officials are also taking water samples, Justin Jacobs, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said by phone Saturday. It’s unclear what caused the derailment. An inspection four days ago turned up nothing unusual in the segment of track where the derailment occurred and the section has been inspected six times since March 21, Jacobs said.

Friday’s derailment renewed the scrutiny of oil-by-rail shipments following a series of incidents including the 2013 Lac Megantic accident and fire in Quebec, which killed 47 people and leveled much of a small town. Most of the U.S. crude shipped by train comes from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region, which lacks enough pipelines to handle all the local output.

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Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard are at the site, about 68 miles (109 km) east of Portland, the FRA said.

Three of the cars that derailed have been placed back on the tracks, and the other 13 will be removed by flat-bed truck, Jacobs said. Once the four cars that were on fire have cooled, their remaining oil will be taken out before they’re hauled away. The company has set up a claims center to pay the costs of evacuation for the local residents, he said.

The FRA’s press office couldn’t be reached for comment.

‘Unacceptable’ Risks

The incident “illustrates the need for safer rail transport and better preparedness for disasters such as these,” U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement posted Friday on his website. “Without change, this will happen again. These risks are unacceptable, and we must take action to prevent them.”

Blumenauer also wrote that “Oregon fire departments are on record saying they don’t have the resources to deal with oil train fires.”

According to the FRA’s tweets, the quarter-mile (400-meter) evacuation at the derailment site was expected to be lifted later Saturday, and investigators are working with the EPA, the U.S. Coast Guard and first responders.

The derailment occurred at 12:20 p.m. local time on Friday, and oil was released from at least one railcar, Union Pacific had said in an e-mail. The train was headed to the TrailStone Refinery in Tacoma, refinery spokeswoman Marcia Nielsen said Friday in an e-mail.

More Derailments

Oil-train accidents have spurred demands by some state and local legislators to bolster emergency response efforts. A single weekend in November 2015 saw two trains derail in Wisconsin. The first spilled about 20,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River, followed a day later by a spill of about 1,000 gallons of North Dakota Bakken crude.

The plunge in global oil prices also has put pressure on the industry because using rail for transportation made sense for refiners when U.S.-produced crude was significantly cheaper than imported.

Even so, rail transport of crude is likely to continue for some time. The number of railcars carrying crude oil in the U.S. grew by more than 4,000 percent between 2008 and 2013, with additional increases in 2014, according to some estimates.

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