As the only sea-level passage through the Cascades, the Columbia River Gorge is a crucial route for oil trains from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, tar sands fields in Alberta, and oil shale fields in Utah. Multiple proposals to build oil terminals in the Pacific Northwest would result in up to 100 oil trains rolling through the Gorge weekly, threatening the environment and communities along the rail lines.
Friends Opposes Oil Transport Through the Gorge Because:
It presents an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spillHighly volatile Bakken oil is being transported through the Gorge in unsafe oil tank cars that are prone to rupture and explode in the event of an accident. Even the safer oil tank cars coming into production now have ruptured and exploded at speeds of 25 mph. Since July 2013, at least 10 major accidents involving oil trains have occurred in North America, resulting in 47 fatalities, causing the evacuation of thousands of people, spilling millions of gallons of oil into waterways, and causing billions of dollars in property damage and environmental destruction.
On June 3, 2016, an event concerned officials and citizens in the Gorge had feared came to pass: A Union Pacific unit train carrying nearly three million gallons of oil derailed as it passed by the town of Mosier, OR, in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Sixten tanker cars derailed; 42,000 gallons spilled, fouling Mosier's sewage system and seeping into the Columbia River. The volatile oil ignited, causing a fire that took 14 hours to extinguish and sending up a plume of smoke that could be seen for many miles around. And this was far from a worst-case scenario: Had the high winds of a typical late spring day in the eastern Columbia Gorge been blowing, a much more catastrophic event would have occurred.
See Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton describe the fire that could have happened in Mosier (click on image to play):
What could have happened in Mosier was something like the worst oil train accident in North America, which occurred in the town of Lac Mégantic, Quebec in 2013 when a runaway oil train derailed and incinerated 47 people and most of the downtown area. Clean up efforts are ongoing after nearly three years. Another derailment in Lynchburg, VA in April 2014 resulted in 30,000 barrels of burning oil spilling into and around the James River. The rail cars involved were CPC-1232, the supposedly “safer” rail cars, as opposed to DOT-111 cars which are the old kind and are supposed to be phased out under new regulations. Other explosive derailments involving the CPC-1232 cars have occurred, including one in Mount Carbon, WA in February 2015 which caused a fire that burned for two full days.
Emergency responders in the Columbia Gorge lack the training, funding, and equipment to adequately respond to accidents, oil spills, and explosions. Growing citizen concerns and mounting complaints from Congress convinced the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue an emergency safety order. The DOT order requires all railroads carrying loads in excess of 1 million gallons—equivalent to 35 tank cars of Bakken crude to notify state emergency responders of all such trains, so communities can better prepare for inevitable accidents.
Existing spill response plans are inadequate and fail to comply with both federal law and the most basic level of environmental protection. A BNSF hazardous materials manager is on record telling a group of concerned citizens in the Gorge that, if an oil spill occurred in the Columbia River, the emergency response would be to let the oil float downriver to the dams and attempt to collect it there. In 2016, as part of a required filing with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, BNSF said that if an oil train derailed in Washington and dumped most of its cargo, cleanup costs could exceed $775 million.
In 2015, Friends, represented by Earthjustice, filed a challenge to a weak oil train safety rule adopted by the USDOT. Later in 2015, Congress passed the FAST Act, a law requiring some additional safety improvements in oil tank cars to be phased in over the next ten years, but the improvements fail to ensure safe transportation of oil by rail. For example, even the safest oil tank cars required under the new law would have a front puncture rating of 18 mph and a side puncture rating of 12 mph, but will be allowed to travel at speeds exceeding 50 mph.
As a result of the federal legislation, Earthjustice withdrew the rule challenge on the behalf of Friends and its co-petitioners. However, the federal government has a lot more to do to improve safety of transporting explosive crude oil by rail:
- Adopt speed limits for oil trains that are within the puncture thresholds of oil tank cars
- Adopt a strong rule requiring notification of crude by rail train routes and frequencies to emergency responders and the public
- Require railroads to have federally approved comprehensive oil spill response plans
- Require the railroads to demonstrate that they have insurance or other financial ability to cleanup and compensate for the harm and restoration from a worst case oil spill
- Adopt a standard to limit the volatility and explosiveness of crude oil allowed to be shipped by rail
- Inspect and repair bridges and rail infrastructure
Railroads propose major expansions of rail for fossil fuel transportBNSF Railway and Union Pacific are proposing a system of double tracks through the most sensitive lands in the Columbia River Gorge, to accommodate anticipated shipments of fossil fuels to new terminals proposed in the Northwest. The rail projects are designed to support an increased number of long oil and coal trains traveling at higher speeds through the Gorge.
BNSF Railway has applied to build four miles of new track in the western Gorge through the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge. The proposed tracks would cross wetlands, streams, sensitive species habitat, and sensitive cultural resource areas.
On the Oregon side, Union Pacific has applied to build four miles of new track along the Columbia River near Mosier.
The Oregon project would pass though Memaloose State Park, with part of the proposed line running through a “Special Management Area,” the most sensitive lands within the National Scenic Area. The project is inconsistent with National Scenic Area Act requirements and would cause adverse impacts to wetlands, scenic resources, and open space.
As a part of the rail expansion project, Union Pacific wanted to acquire 2.5 acres of park land at Memaloose State Park. In order for Oregon State Parks to approve a land transfer, it must find that the transfer is an “overwhelming public benefit to the Oregon State Park system, its visitors, and the citizens of Oregon.” On April 27, 2016, after hearing from hundreds of members of the public opposing the project, the Oregon State Parks Commission voted unanimously to deny the land transfer, finding that it was not beneficial to the state park or its visitors. In particular, the State Parks Commission found that the increase in rail traffic resulting from the project could increase the risks of accidents with park visitors. While the land transfer denial was a big victory for the Gorge and a setback for Union Pacific, the railroad is pushing forward with the project. The project is currently undergoing National Scenic Area review before the Wasco County Planning Commission.
The terminals could become part of a much larger oil export systemIn late 2015 Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, a bill that repealed a 40-year ban on oil exports. This verifies a concern held by many since these new oil terminals were proposed: That this oil is intended for export and the international oil market, not domestic consumption. Even though Tesoro has claimed their proposed terminal for Vancouver is for U.S. consumption, they also for many years supported repealing the export ban and easing of laws that restrict oil markets. It is clear the U.S. does not need the oil from these terminals and very likely that it has been intended for international export all along.
We should not be increasing our dependence on fossil fuelsAll the proposed oil and coal terminals represent a massive investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure development. The burning of coal and oil are, by far, the leading cause of climate change worldwide. In order to prevent the worst effects of climate change (which we are already beginning to see, even right here in the Gorge), we must start decommissioning fossil fuel infrastructure and replace it with carbon-free alternatives. The last thing we should be doing is building new infrastructure which will dedicate us to many more decades of fossil fuel extraction and use. If we are serious about doing something to prevent the worst effects of global warming and climate change, we must prevent the build-out of new coal and oil terminals.
Friends’ Message About Crude Oil Transport
We must ensure the protection of our communities and special places like the Columbia Gorge from the transport of oil. We can accomplish this by calling on decision-making officials in the Pacific Northwest to oppose new oil terminals that rely on transporting oil by rail through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
We can do better. Say NO to the terminals and YES to clean energy solutions. It's time for the Pacific Northwest to lead on safe, renewable clean energy and say no to dirty, dangerous fossil-fuel transport.
Friends’ conservation work is driven by members, volunteers, and activists. There are many ways to join our community of Gorge enthusiasts. Here are some ways to get started:
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