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Jared Kennedy | 06.09.2016

Sitting in traffic for five and a half hours provided me with more than enough time to process what had just happened. At Palouse Falls, returning from a week spent exploring Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho, I got the text from my brother letting me know traffic was shut down for 25 miles, that an oil train operated by Union Pacific had derailed. When, after a barrage of expletives, I asked him how bad it was, he said it was well contained but could have been so much worse. One rail car was on fire and a number of others were off the tracks, and that we should take Highway 14 to avoid I-84 which was closed at The Dalles. With some relief, it was nevertheless just what I've feared since learning of the issue a few years ago, thanks to the work by Sightline Institute to inform us of the plans to convert the railroads in the gorge into a moving oil pipeline ripe for disaster.

We headed out immediately. We had to be ready to go at the Top Spur trailhead at 8 a.m. the next morning for a trip to the Sandy Glacier Caves. People were counting on us to be there so we couldn't stick it out for another night in Washington, we had to drive right through Mosier. We hoped we could grab a quick dinner in Hood River before making it to camp around 10 p.m. Wishful thinking.

Photo provided courtesy of Columbia Riverkeeper.

We hit the traffic lined up at Horsethief Butte at 7 p.m. Five and a half hours later we reached Hood River. In between, I began to process what had happened, and my anger eventually turned to hope. Could this be where we move forward to a new reality for oil train transport? I believe it can.

Together we can use this event as a catalyst for change. As far as derailments go, this could have been so much worse. It's what we keep hearing from everyone involved. The conditions were just right. No wind to spread the fire, no one was injured, only one train car erupted in an inextinguishable fire, almost no oil spilled into the Columbia River, the salmon run wasn't going to be impacted, and a nearby school was evacuated without incident. The oil train derailed, but with it, a newfound hope has emerged that we can finally derail the attempts by private industries to build export terminals for Bakken crude across the Pacific Northwest, and thereby stop or limit the transport of oil by rail.

Jim Appleton, Mosier's Fire Chief, captured the sentiment perfectly. Once agnostic on the relative merits of oil trains running through his town, he watched as Mosier was threatened by a fire he had no ability to contain or extinguish. His opinion was instantly shifted, and he has vowed to fight the proposed export terminal in Vancouver, Washington that will lead to a major increase in oil by rail transit through the gorge. His main argument that "shareholder value doesn't outweigh the lives and happiness of our community" is hopefully a rallying cry for every town in the path of these trains.

Along with Jim, many people previously on the fence or who have been relatively quiet on the issue are coming forward to share his concerns. The tribes of the Columbia River have taken a lead on the issue, although their concerns are often not fully considered. Oil trains unduly jeopardize their treaty rights to fish for salmon on the Columbia River, and they reiterated that these concerns need to be taken into account. Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, as well as senators and congressional delegates from both states, have called for a moratorium on oil trains through the gorge and asked that routes be reconsidered to not put towns and people's lives at risk.

Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, weighed in on the issue in an op-ed saying that shipping oil by rail is woefully unsafe. I'll quote his final paragraph:

It is time for all citizens in the Northwest, not just environmentalists, not just Native Americans, not just recreation enthusiasts, to say enough is enough. We need to phase out rail shipments of crude oil, and we need to begin in our nation's most sensitive regions, like the Columbia River Gorge, before the next accident devastates this American treasure.

Let's use this opportunity to weigh in. Here are various channels where you can put your voice behind the efforts to make this the last oil train to derail in the Columbia River Gorge or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest:

Photos for this story were generously provided to us by Columbia Riverkeeper.


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