MOSIER, Ore. — A Union Pacific train towing oil cars derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge Friday, evacuating schools in the nearby town of Mosier and closing down Interstate 84 between Hood River and The Dalles.
According to Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt, 11 cars in the 96-car train derailed around noon near Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland.
The train was hauling oil from Eastport, Idaho, and was headed for Tacoma, Washington. It was carrying Bakken crude oil, a type of oil known to be highly volatile.
According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, one car is fully engulfed in flames and another one is on fire. From KATU’s Chopper 2, however, it was clear that more than one car was on fire — perhaps as many as four. Another Union Pacific representative, Justin Jacobs, acknowledged several were “aflame” and said oil leaked from at least one car. The company is providing personnel and support to respond to the incident, he said.
During an evening news conference Gov. Kate Brown said no one was killed or injured in the incident and thanked first responders.
“I’m extremely grateful to the myriad of public and private individuals and organizations across two states who have responded to this situation very swiftly and very effectively,” she said.
A spokesperson from the state fire marshal’s office told KATU that firefighters were taking a defensive stance in their battle against the flames and the best course of action may be to let the fire burn itself out.
Dan Hammel, division chief for Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue said firefighters were engaged in a “cooling operation,” which involves putting water on cars that were not involved in to keep them from catching fire. After the cooling operation is complete, crews will work on fire suppression, which is expected to continue throughout the night.
Mosier students were taken to Wahtonka campus in The Dalles. Parents living in the area could pick up their students from that location; the district scheduled buses for the remaining students. Officials also evacuated Mosier Manor, which is a trailer park containing about 50 to 55 trailers.
A Level 2 evacuation order is in effect for the city and out to a mile around it. A Level 2 order warns people to get ready to evacuate.
The Union Pacific train derailed just after noon. The ensuing fire created a large plume of black smoke rising from the train tracks near Mosier, which is located off I-84 east of Hood River.
Gresham Fire confirmed that their HazMat crews are heading to the scene. Dept. of Environmental Quality officials said they are investigating the impact of the derailment and fire.
Interstate 84 was closed for a 23-mile stretch between The Dalles and Mosier and the radius for evacuations was a half-mile.
Portland Airport Fire & Rescue has sent a specialized firefighting foam truck carrying about 1,300 gallons of fire suppression foam, four firefighters and a chief to aid in the firefighting effort.
Silas Bleakley was working at his restaurant in Mosier when the train derailed.
“You could feel it through the ground. It was more of a feeling than a noise,” he told The Associated Press as smoke billowed from the tankers.
Bleakley said he went outside, saw the smoke and got in his truck and drove about 2,000 feet to a bridge that crosses the railroad tracks.
There, he said he saw tanker cars “accordioned” across the tracks.
Another witness, Brian Schurton, was driving in Mosier and watching the train as it passed by the town when he heard a tremendous noise.
“All of a sudden, I heard ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ like dominoes,” he said.
He, too, drove to the bridge overpass to look down and saw the cars flipped over before a fire started in one of the cars and he called 911, he said.
“The train wasn’t going very fast. It would have been worse if it had been faster,” said Schurton, who runs a windsurfing business in nearby Hood River.
The accident immediately drew reaction from environmentalists who said oil should not be transported by rail, particularly along a river that is a hub of recreation and commerce.
“Moving oil by rail constantly puts our communities and environment at risk,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Eugene, Oregon.
It wasn’t immediately clear if oil had seeped into the river or what had caused the derailment. Hunt did not know how fast the train was traveling at the time, but witnesses said it was going slowly as it passed the town of Mosier.
Response teams were using a drone to assess the damage, said Katherine Santini, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service.
Since last spring, North Dakota regulators have required companies to treat oil before it’s shipped by rail to make it less combustible.
A May 2015 derailment near Heimdal, North Dakota, involved cars carrying oil that had been treated to reduce the volatility, but the crude still ignited. At least one train wreck involving treated Bakken oil did not result in a fire, when 22 cars derailed and 35,000 gallons of oil spilled near Culbertson, Montana, last July.
Reducing the explosiveness of the crude moved by rail was not supposed to be a cure-all to prevent accidents. Department of Transportation rules imposed last year require companies to use stronger tank cars that are better able to withstand derailments.
But tens of thousands of outdated tank cars that are prone to split open during accidents remain in use.
It’s expected to take years for them to be retrofitted or replaced.
Hunt, the Union Pacific spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether the Bakken oil in Friday’s derailment had been treated to reduce volatility. It also wasn’t clear if the tank cars in the accident had been retrofitted under the new rules.
But Jacobs, the other spokesman for Union Pacific, said during the evening news conference that the cars had been “upgraded to the 1-2-3-2 standard.”
“We apologize to the residents of Mosier, the state of Oregon and the broader Pacific Northwest Region for any inconvenience this incident may be causing,” he said.
The cause of the derailment is under investigation, he said.
Matt Lehner, a spokesman from the Federal Railroad Administration, said a team of investigators was headed to the scene from Vancouver, Washington.
The Red Cross has set up an emergency shelter at Dry Hollow Grade School at 1314 East 19th Street in The Dalles who need shelter.
This is a developing story, updates will be posted as information comes in.