Jim Appleton, the fire chief in Mosier, Ore., said in the past, he’s tried to reassure his town that the Union Pacific Railroad has a great safety record and that rail accidents are rare.
He's changed his mind.
After a long night working with hazardous material teams and firefighters from across the Northwest to extinguish a fire that started when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in his town, Appleton no longer believes shipping oil by rail is safe.
"I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” he said. "I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community."
Federal regulators say oil from the Bakken region is more flammable and more dangerous, than other types of crude. It's been involved in a string of rail disasters, including a tragedy that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
Shipments through the Columbia River Gorge have dramatically increased in recent years and oil companies have proposed building the largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country 70 miles downstream from Mosier, at the the Port of Vancouver.
Emergency responders in communities along rail lines in the Northwest have struggled to prepare for a possible disaster. Much of the focus has been on stockpiling critical equipment needed to fight oil spills and fires, including a special type of fire suppression foam.
But Appleton said that foam was of relatively little use for the first 10 hours after the spill in Mosier. It couldn't be directly applied to the main rail car that was on fire.
"The rationale that was explained to me by the Union Pacific fire personnel is that the metal is too hot, and the foam will land on the white-hot metal and evaporate without any suppression effect," he said. "That was kind of an eye-opener for me."
Appleton said crews spent 8 to 10 hours cooling down the adjacent rail cars with water before the final burning car was cool enough to be extinguished using the firefighting foam. Fire tending trucks drew water from the Columbia River using a nearby orchard supply line, and applied roughly 1,500 gallons of water per minute to the white-hot rail cars.
Other first responders described a chaotic scene, and difficulty getting to the site of the accident due to a massive snarl of traffic on Interstate 84.
"It looked like the apocalypse," said Elizabeth Sanchey, the Yakima Nation's environmental manager and the head of its hazmat crew. "You get into town, and there is just exhausted firefighters everywhere you look. It was quite scary."
No lives were lost in the fire, and reports so far of property damage have been minimal, but an oil slick has appeared in the Columbia River, and officials said they haven't determined for sure how oil is reaching the water. Yellow oil containment booms were stretched across the river to contain the oil.
Sanchey and several other Yakama Nation first responders were monitoring the containment effort through binoculars from a nearby overpass.
"It's unknown how much oil is in the river, but it is in containment now, and we believe it to be relatively safe," she said. "We currently have a sockeye run that is just starting, and lamprey live in the sediment, so that's definitely a concern. We have endangered species at risk."
Jim Appleton said Friday was a horrible day for his town, and he feels like he narrowly avoided a catastrophe.
"If the same derailment had happened just 24 hours earlier, there would have been 35 mph gusts blowing the length of the train," he said. "The fire very easily could have spread to some or all of the 96 cars behind, because they were in the line of the prevailing wind. That would have been the catastrophe."
In a press conference Saturday, the Union Pacific Railroad apologized for the incident.
"We apologize to the residents of Mosier, the state of Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest Region," said spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza.
Espinoza said the railroad company will pay for the cost of fighting the fire. She said it has to wait for the area to cool down before it can extract the cars that remain and remove them by flatbed truck.
The company said crude oil represents less than 1 percent of its cargo, and said it has trained more than 2,300 emergency responders across Oregon since 2010.
Union Pacific set up information and health hotlines for Mosier residents. The information hotline number is 1-877-877-2567. The health hotline number is 1-888-633-3120.