REUTERS - A Union Pacific train carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames along Oregon’s scenic Columbia River gorge on Friday in the first major rail accident involving crude in a year.
While no injuries were reported, the train remained engulfed in flames six hours after the derailment, officials said. The accident has already renewed calls for stronger regulation to guard communities against crude-by-rail accidents.
Union Pacific Corp, owner of the line, said 11 rail cars from a 96-car train carrying crude oil derailed about 70 miles (110 km) east of Portland, near the tiny town of Mosier.
Oil spilled from one car, but multiple cars of Bakken crude caught fire, said Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Fuller. Firefighters were still fighting the flames several hours later.
The crude was bought by TrailStone Inc’s U.S. Oil & Refining Co and bound for its refinery in Tacoma, Washington, some 200 miles (322 km) northwest of the derailment, the company said.
Television footage showed smoke and flames along with overturned black tanker cars snaking across the tracks, which weave through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
“I looked outside and there was black and white smoke blowing across the sky, and I could hear the flames,” said Mosier resident Dan Hoffman, 32, whose house is about 100 meters (328 ft) from the derailment. “A sheriff’s official in an SUV told me to get the hell out.”
While rail shipments have dipped from more than 1 million barrels per day in 2014 as a result of the lengthy slump in oil prices, the first such crash in a year will likely reignite the debate over safety concerns surrounding transporting crude by rail.
“Seeing our beautiful Columbia River Gorge on fire today should be a wake-up call for federal and state agencies – underscoring the need to complete comprehensive environmental reviews of oil-by-rail in the Pacific Northwest,” said U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.
Ecology officials from Washington state said there was no sign of oil in the Columbia River or Rock Creek.
SAFETY MEASURES DELAYED
Since 2008, there have been at least 10 major oil-train derailments across the United States and Canada, including a disaster that killed 47 people in a Quebec town in July 2013.
The incident comes eight months after lawmakers extended a deadline until the end of 2018 for rail operators to implement advanced safety technology, known as positive train control, or PTC, which safety experts say can avoid derailments and other major accidents.
The measures included phasing out older tank cars, adding electronic braking systems and imposing speed limits, all meant to reduce the frequency and severity of oil train crashes.
The tank cars involved in Friday’s crash were CPC-1232 models, which elected officials have raised concerns about in the past even though they are an upgrade from older models considered less safe. On Friday, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon repeated his call from last year for federal officials to look into whether the newer cars were safe enough.
“It’s clear with this crash - as it has been for years - that more must be done to protect our communities,” Wyden said.
Rail operators such as Union Pacific are required under federal law to disclose crude rail movements to state officials to help prepare for emergencies. The rule was put in place after a string of fiery derailments.
Union Pacific hazardous materials workers responded to the scene along with contractors packing firefighting foam and a boom for oil spill containment.
In its latest disclosure with the state, Union Pacific said it moved light volumes of Bakken crude oil along its state network, which includes the Oregon line. In March, it transported six unit trains, which generally carry about 75,000 barrels each.
As emergency responders descended on the crash site, Interstate 84 was closed and residents were ordered to leave the area.
Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the Columbia Riverkeeper advocacy group, said the crash should raise concerns about Tesoro Corp’s proposed 360,000 barrels-per-day railport in Vancouver, Washington, which would be the country’s largest.
“We are very concerned about additional oil trains passing through our community because of their safety record, the risk of fires, of explosions, the risks of spills,” he said.