Think Out Loud

In the Columbia River Gorge, officials are preparing for unexpected train disasters

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
March 24, 2024 7:04 p.m. Updated: April 1, 2024 5:48 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 25

Chris Hooper, right, of White Salmon watches the fire caused by a derailed oil train in Mosier, Oregon, near Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge on Friday, June 3, 2016.

Chris Hooper, right, of White Salmon watches the fire caused by a derailed oil train in Mosier, Oregon, near Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge on Friday, June 3, 2016.

John Sepulvado / OPB


On June 3, 2016, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Mosier, a Wasco County community in the Columbia River Gorge. Several rail cars caught fire and oil leaked into the Columbia River.

For some officials, the incident was a wake-up call. Trains carrying oil regularly pass through the Columbia River Gorge. In Oregon, agencies are coordinating with officials from Washington, tribal and federal governments to prepare for future oil spills. Chuck Thompson is the editor of Columbia Insight, a nonprofit news website covering environmental issues around the Columbia River Basin. He wrote about these efforts and joins us with details.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. In the spring of 2016, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Mosier, a Wasco County community in the Columbia River Gorge. 47,000 gallons of oil spilled, some of it into the river, and it took firefighters 14 hours to put out the massive fire. But it could have been much worse. Since then, leaders throughout the Gorge have been planning in anticipation of a future rail disaster. Chuck Thompson wrote about this recently. He is the editor of Columbia Insight, a non-profit news website covering environmental issues around the Columbia River Basin, and he joins us now. It’s great to have you on the show.

Chuck Thompson: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Miller: Can you remind us just what happened in Mosier in 2016?

Thompson: Yeah, you summed up pretty well. It was on June 3rd, and a Union Pacific train coming through the Columbia River Gorge hit what was determined to be a rusty bolt, of all things, and derailed. Three oil cars fell off the tracks and opened up, spilling about 47,000 gallons of oil. The derailment occurred about 800 feet from the river. According to the EPA just a minor amount of that oil seeped into the river. But as you also mentioned, it was an incredibly lucky set of circumstances there around Mosier. The train derailed right next to this wastewater intake facility and a lot of the oil just naturally drained into this wastewater system.

Miller: If I’d ever heard that detail before, I had forgotten it! In your article, it’s this incredible circumstance that a lot of the oil went directly into a treatment facility.

Thompson: Unbelievable. And the other fortuitous event which feels rather providential, was there was virtually no wind that day, and anybody who’s been in the Columbia River Gorge knows there’s almost never no wind. It was dead calm. I mean, the 10 mph to 15 mph average wind speeds in the Gorge in June, and there was nothing. The fires that were ignited might have blown and spread, not only across Mosier and destroyed the town; it could have moved in, become a wildland fire at that point.

Miller: So the nightmare scenario, which it seems like it was maybe narrowly avoided, was more like what we saw in Quebec a couple of years before that, a town destroyed.

Thompson: Yeah, that was Lac-Mégantic, a train derailed. It was 73 cars of oil, a massive inferno ignited and destroyed the entire town. I think 45 to 50 people died in that blaze. And it could very well have been that precise scenario in Mosier that day.

Miller: What did you hear as the big lessons that officials on either side of the river took from Mosier?

Thompson: Several large lessons. One was just about coordination, and this is not to say that the response effort was not coordinated to Mosier, but it definitely hit some road bumps. I mean, when you think about the Columbia River Gorge in an emergency situation – in any situation – the amount of jurisdictional entities that are operating out there is phenomenal.

One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate in this job is how you’ve got the Department of Interior out there, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, you’ve got the National Forest Service, you’ve got federal agencies, the EPA was operating. Oregon’s state response was led by the Department of Environmental Quality. You’ve got county municipality jurisdictions and then you’ve got the four treaty tribes out there. There’s the Nez Perce, Yakima, Umatilla and Warm Springs all out there as well, with rights and things. So you’ve got to coordinate all of these entities with the Oregon Fire Marshal.

That is something that they’ve really been working on since Mosier, in the last eight years – conducting drills and practices and conferences just to get everybody’s act squared together, who’s in charge of what. One other thing that was a subset of that was, Richard Franklin, who led the EPA response, who’s still here in Portland Region 10, on scene coordinator at the time, really owned up to the fact that the governmental agencies did not do a very good job of integrating the tribal response to that disaster. And that actually delayed things a little, that was a bit of a hiccup in that response. And since that time, everybody really recognized that the tribes not only have rights out there, but they have a lot of resources and a lot of expertise in responding to disasters here. So they’ve been much more integrated into the response plans.

Miller: If I recall correctly, his experience in the early moments after that disaster, early hours or days, highlighted another challenge, which is just getting there. He got stuck on 84, right? Which can happen any day. But, what are the specific transportation challenges in the Gorge?

Thompson: Well, anyone, again, who’s been to the Gorge can think of themselves. It’s a pretty narrow gorge with relatively few access points. You’ve got two major roadways going out there, I-84 on the Oregon side and State Route 14 on the Washington side.

Let’s say you’re in Portland, where the majority of the fire response trucks and other equipment was coming from to fight the Mosier fire. Some also came from the Tri-Cities east, but the majority were coming from Portland. They have equipment, they’re stuck on I-84. It’s a 30-mile traffic jam because I-84 was shut down by the…

Miller: the very disaster they were trying to get to.

Thompson: So now everybody’s saying, well, OK, let’s get across the river. We’ll go over on (SR)-14 and come over at Cascade Locks or the Dalles or wherever. Well, suddenly you’ve got all of that traffic on this two-lane highway, SR-14, that’s not equipped to handle that kind of traffic. So it really bogged down the response time. And that is a challenge. In the event of a major disaster that would be upriver of the Bonneville Dam, the Coast Guard can bring in oil skimmers and other types of boats. Well, they’ve got to get through locks and it takes them a long time to get up there. So there’s just not a lot of ways into the Gorge to bring equipment.

Miller: Let’s take a step back here just to talk about the recent history and why it is that there is crude oil in pretty big doses going through the Gorge to begin with. It didn’t used to be that way. And then you note that the Bakken crude fracking boom…I was gonna say explosion…led to a wholesale change in the way refining worked or where it was happening. Where are we now, in terms of that boom and the amount of oil that is actually being shipped by rail through the Gorge, on either side of the Columbia, in Washington or Oregon?

Thompson: The boom has subsided. I think it peaked in 2019,


you’re absolutely right. It came from fracked oil, basically from North Dakota. And at that time, they were producing so much of that oil that the closest refineries were basically up in Puget Sound. And the fastest way to get that oil from North Dakota to all these refineries in the Puget Sound and California by the way, was a train trip through the Gorge, and either hang a right and go north to Puget Sound or you go down to California refineries.

Miller: As opposed to going to the east coast or to New Orleans.

Thompson: As the crow flies. It’s a lot faster and cheaper for these companies to get the oil to the refineries on the west coast. And the fastest route to get to the west coast and these refineries is through the Columbia River Gorge. Those rail tracks are run by BNSF on the Washington side of the river and Union Pacific on the Oregon side of the river. So, that peaked around 2019. I think there were about 110,000, 118,000 rail cars per year going through the Gorge carrying oil. We’re at somewhere between 40-45,000 rail cars filled with oil going through the Gorge each year, at the present time. There are about two and a half  “oil-unit” trains per day that go through the Columbia River Gorge, on average.

Miller: An “oil-unit” train – this is a phrase I hadn’t really known before your article, but meaning a train that’s just carrying oil. So, two and a half times a day, an oil-specific train is rumbling through, even if that’s well below the peak just four or five years ago.

Thompson: That’s right. Technically a unit train can be a train that’s carrying any single commodity, that’s dedicated to a single commodity – oil, sugar, cattle, whatever – that takes its product from the point of origin to its final destination. That’s a unit train.

Miller: I want to go back to what you mentioned about what happened in Mosier in 2016, because it was just one rusty bolt that your article notes. The tracks had been checked just a couple days before. What does that mean in terms of our collective ability, whether it’s BNSF or Union Pacific, the companies or regulators, our collective ability to prevent a spill like this from happening in the first place?

Thompson: That’s a real point of contention for critics of oil trains through the Gorge – some of whom would like to have them stopped entirely – which is that you can have the greatest response preparation of all time. You could line that river with 10,000 people on either side of the river, 24/7, 365 days a year, and if an oil train is gonna spill, you’re not gonna be able to do much about it.

One thing I found in researching this article is that I think there are a lot of really good, competent and dedicated and excellent people working on this issue, whether in federal government, state government, county level There’s a lot of private organizations that are doing what they can. The tribes. There’s some great preparation and some really stellar people who are working their best to respond to any tragedy. But the fact of the matter is that there are scenarios where a potential spill would just overwhelm any human ability to stop that. And that’s what the big concern is. You can have all the preparation in the world, and a rusty bolt can throw you off your game pretty fast.

Miller: In 2019, Washington governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law aimed at either fully or largely preventing crude oil by rail in the state. What happened to that law?

Thompson: That was the state of Washington trying to regulate “vapor-pressure thresholds,” as they called it, which is basically a way to limit the flammability of this Bakken crude oil, which is, among the oil, a very flammable substance. And the Washington Legislature passed this law, enacted the law.

In 2020, the federal government came in to challenge that law and said, wait a minute, the state of Washington has no right to inhibit the flow of commerce or transporting commercial goods through the state based on a safety issue. Specifically, that was their argument – that the state doesn’t have the right to inhibit commerce in this way and they won that case in court.

So the Washington law was struck down. Washington has enacted, as Oregon has since Mosier, stricter laws governing oil trains through the Gorge and anywhere in the state. Railroads now pay fees to these states for emergency response funding. And there’s new positions at Oregon DEQ that are funded by these new laws that have been enacted since. But some of the harshest ones, the one that you mentioned that Insley signed and Washington wanted to do, have been struck down by the federal courts.

Miller: So in other words, the laws that are still in the books, they are about responding to a potential disaster, as opposed to making it so these trains couldn’t roll through the Gorge in the first place.

Thompson: There’s a lot of people that will tell you the way the laws are written now and that are very protective of railroads and interstate commerce. It’s really hard for states to regulate what’s going on with these oil trains. If the state of Oregon wants to just say, hey, we don’t want any more oil trains going through the Gorge, that’s not gonna happen. The federal government’s gonna stand up and say...

Miller:’s a classic interstate issue.

Thompson: ...sorry, pal. Yeah, you’ve got oil in the Gorge now. So, I think what most people have done is take the position of, all right, what’s the best way to mitigate what many people feel is an inevitable disaster?

Miller: You wrote about an emergency drill that happened over the summer, which the whole point of is to prepare for and practice for that inevitability, as you just noted. How seriously did all the different folks from all these different jurisdictions or agencies take these drills?

Thompson: I’ll tell you what, I look at most stories in the Gorge, of the things that we do at the Columbian site. It’s just a matter of competing interests, right? There are people that want this. Some people want oil to go through the Gorge, other people don’t. They both got pretty good reasons for that.  I come at it with a reporter’s skepticism whenever I talk to governments, agencies or railroads, things like that.

I have to say one of the things I really took away, as I mentioned earlier, was that the people that are tasked with preparing us for this kind of thing are really serious about it. That drill was incredibly serious. It was almost to a military level of, OK, this is for real. It’s a red- hot scenario.

There were evaluators running around the Fort Dalles Readiness Center, I think it’s called, where this took place. And then on the river bank on day two, I talked to Wasco County Sheriff Magill out there. I mean, they could not have taken it more seriously. Nobody wants this, right? Nobody wants this, and everybody wants to be prepared, and they’re actually pretty jacked up about to be prepared about it. It’s their job and they want to do well. They do this military-style hotwash evaluation immediately after the drill, to grade them on their efforts.

So, I believe, as I said, the people that are in charge of doing this are really committed to it, and I think they’re excellent. Whether any human being can respond to…who knows where a train is gonna derail. I mean, you’ve got no way to predict that.

Miller: Chuck, thanks very much.

Thompson: Thank you.

Miller: Chuck Thompson is the editor of Columbia Insight. You can read his recent article about the preparations for an oil train derailment in the Columbia Gorge on the site right now.

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