Thursday, June 09, 2016

Rural Oregon residents thankful oil-train derailment in Columbia River Gorge wasn't a bigger disaster

Michelle Nijhuis, a writer for The New Yorker, lives in the Columbia River Gorge, on the border of Washington and Oregon, where a crude oil train derailed on Friday. She details her first-hand experience during the Union Pacific disaster—the company blames it on a track failure—that knocked 16 cars off the tracks, forcing the town of Mosier, Oregon, to be evacuated and 23 miles of interstate to be closed. (Best Places map)

"I looked up from my computer to see a plume of brown smoke outside my window," she writes. "Here smoke usually means wildfire. But this smoke was different: darker, heavier, and closer than any I’d seen. The smoke thickened into an opaque black funnel. The air smelled like a tire shop."

"The interstate remained closed until late Friday night, and the flames weren’t fully extinguished until two o’clock in the morning," Nijhuis writes. "At noon on Saturday, under an unseasonably hot sun, about a hundred people gathered in the nearby resort town of Hood River to protest the continued shipping of oil by rail through the gorge. The derailment happened on an unusually calm afternoon; the gorge is famous for its wind, and even a normal breeze could have blown the fire into town."

"Gorge residents have worried about a derailment for years, and recent disasters elsewhere on the continent have done nothing to reassure them," Nijhuis writes. "On Monday afternoon, seventy-two hours after the derailment, the town of Mosier was still clogged with industrial traffic, and its population was 50 percent larger than usual: some 200 workers from Union Pacific and a constellation of state and federal agencies were at work on various aspects of the cleanup, including assessing the size of a small spill of oil into the river." (KGW 8 photo)

"They had finished removing 10,000 gallons of oil from the town’s wastewater-treatment system, and were in the process of pumping oil from the 12 unburned rail cars, which lay in a crooked line next to the tracks," she writes. "White tents scattered across the school grounds were filled with emergency workers, not students; the school year, which was scheduled to end this week, had come to an abrupt and premature close. Most residents have now returned to their homes, but life won’t be back to normal for weeks. On Sunday evening, as Mosier residents emerged from their meeting, trains once again started rolling through town." (Read more)

The derailment was a close call, reports Rob Davis of The Oregonian: "800 feet in either direction, and Friday's oil train derailment ... might've sent flaming tank cars into a lake in a National Scenic Area. A half-mile east, and the inferno would've burned a few feet beneath a block of modular homes. Another mile-and-a-half, and leaking tank cars would've landed on the bank of the Columbia River during peak spring chinook salmon migration.

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, at lectern
UPDATE, June 10: "Leaders of several Pacific Northwest tribes gathered Thursday near the site of last week’s fiery oil train wreck in Oregon to condemn the shipping of fossil fuels through the Columbia River Gorge, a scenic homeland and sacred fishing ground for the Yakama Nation and others over the millennia," Gillian Flaccus of The Associated Press reports. (Flaccus photo)

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