Despite state and local calls for a moratorium, Union Pacific officials say they plan to resume sending crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge this week.
These would be the first trains carrying crude oil to pass on the Oregon side of the Gorge since the June 3 derailment in Mosier where 16 cars carrying crude oil left the tracks. The derailment spilled 42,000 gallons of crude oil and caused a fire that forced 100 people to evacuate their homes. The crash closed Interstate 84 for hours and left a small oil sheen on the Columbia River.
Wes Lujan, vice president of public affairs for Union Pacific, wrote in an email to public officials Monday that he expected normal operations to resume over the course of this week.
“This includes transporting crude oil,” Lujan wrote. “As we have stated during our in-person meetings, the federal common carrier obligation requires railroads to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials.”
Union Pacific said it would start hauling both crude oil unit trains as well as trains carrying crude oil mixed in with other commodities. Citing security concerns, a spokesman for Union Pacific wouldn’t say whether the railroad had already starting transporting crude through the Gorge or whether it would begin later this week.
Related: Oil Trains In The Northwest
Last week, transportation officials in Oregon called for a moratorium on crude oil moving through the state by rail. Union Pacific has said a preliminary review shows that problems with a metal fastener on the tracks led to the derailment. But inspectors toured the tracks in Mosier just a few weeks before the accident and did not see any problems.
“The fact that we did that level of inspection and we did not find evidence of that defect was incredibly alarming,” Hal Gard, rail administrator for the Oregon Department of Transportation, told OPB last week.
Through a spokesman Wednesday, Gard said he hasn’t yet received a response from the Federal Rail Administration regarding the state’s request for a moratorium on oil trains and doesn’t expect to hear back. The FRA told ODOT it could contact their legal counsel if the state wanted more additional material, a spokesman for ODOT said.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure we have the safest rail system possible,” Gard said in a statement Wednesday after learning Union Pacific would resume oil train service through the Gorge. “We will work with all parties to achieve comprehensive inspections, develop techniques to identify defects, including broken bolts, review fastener replacement schedules, stay focused on those routes where hazardous materials are moved in volume. I will keep this issue a top priority.”
Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley repeated calls Wednesday for the FRA to stop oil train traffic.
"We urge the FRA to use [its] emergency order authority," the senators wrote in a letter. "Specifically, we request that the FRA place a moratorium on unit trains transporting crude oil and other hazardous materials through the Gorge until the FRA has issued a final investigative report for the Mosier accident."
Shortly after the June 3 crash, Union Pacific had said it would halt oil trains through the area until an investigation is complete. Federal officials are still looking into the incident.
But an official with Union Pacific clarified Wednesday that the railroad had already finished its own investigation, and determined that a failure in the rail fastener system caused the Mosier incident.
Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns said officials from the railroad met with her Monday and told her about their plans to resume moving oil trains through Mosier.
“We’re really devastated to hear this news,” Burns told OPB. “We feel it’s a defiance of the wish of our state.”
Burns said the decision has left the community feeling like there’s little they can do.
“The railroad is so protected by the various common carrier, interstate commerce laws and that even with the senators and the state opposing this now, Union Pacific is not willing to work with us in a way that is satisfactory,” she said. “There are people that are depressed. There are people that are angry. And there are people that are afraid.”
Hood River Mayor Paul Blackburn said he sat down with officials from Union Pacific last week. Like Burn’s he too is upset and said he’s asked the state’s U.S. Senators to intervene with the Federal Rail Administration.
“I’m disappointed in UP, but I can see their point: They’re obligated to haul what’s presented to them,” Blackburn said. “Unfettered commerce benefits them more than a moratorium. So I with that they hadn’t restarted, but also hope that the folks who regulate them will clarify the rules."
On Wednesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responded to UP's announcement by reiterating her call to ban oil by rail for the foreseeable future.
"As I said last week and again as oil begins to roll through our Gorge, I call on federal authorities to ban the transport of oil by rail until safety can be greatly improved and our first responders have the tools they need," Brown said in a statement. "Federal agencies and policymakers in Washington, D.C., will continue to put people and ecosystems at risk as they postpone implementation of reasonable safety measures that protect us unless we demand accountability."
Washington state leaders have stopped short of calling for a moratorium on crude oil trains. Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad runs tracks that carry crude oil along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge.
Officials in Washington have said federal law prohibits them from placing a moratorium on crude oil trains, or any other commodity. But the same federal laws apply in Oregon.
Over the weekend, more than 100 people gathered on BNSF tracks in Vancouver to protest moving crude oil by rail through the Gorge. Police arrested 21 people.
Here's a copy of Union Pacific's full statement:
Union Pacific has a singular goal: to operate trains safely.
Some of the products Union Pacific transports are considered to be hazardous, including crude oil. Railroads provide the infrastructure, flexible networks and efficiency needed to move crude oil from locations where oil is recovered to customer facilities. Per federal regulation, we notify the state of Oregon that we transport crude oil trains. Crude is less than 1 percent of our total shipments through Oregon.
During our recent meetings with residents and elected officials, Union Pacific committed to notifying communities we serve along the Gorge when normal operations would resume. We expect those operations to resume over the course of this week. This includes transporting crude oil.
As we have stated during our in-person meetings, the federal common carrier obligation requires railroads to transport crude oil and other hazardous materials. If a customer delivers a crude oil tank car in conformity with U.S. Department of Transportation requirements, we are obligated to transport the rail car to its destination.
— Wes Lujan , Union Pacific Railroad