Natural Resources Defense Council

by Lora Shinn, September 30, 2019

Oil Train Accidents

The fossil fuel industry maintains a strong presence in the Pacific Northwest thanks to its international export activity. But ever since a dangerous rail accident in 2016, local residents have served as a fierce check on its growth.

A cluster of pick-your-own cherry orchards beckons visitors to the town of Mosier, Oregon, each summer. The town is about 70 miles east of Portland in what’s known as the “dry side” of the Eastern Columbia Gorge. It’s a quiet life for Mosier’s 452 residents, whose hill homes sit between steep peaks climbing to nearby Mount Hood and the rail tracks lining the Columbia River. Quiet, that is, except when the freight trains barrel through.

It’s June, and I’m in Mosier with the town’s mayor, Arlene Burns. Cherry season has just begun, but I’m here to visit the site where, three years ago, a 96-car Union Pacific train carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed, setting off a massive blaze.

Burns is a petite woman with blue eyes the color of the Columbia. Her voice is only slightly roughened by the late nights and speeches and negotiations concerning the threat that transporting crude oil by rail poses to her town.

At the site, Burns points out the Mosier Manor Mobile Home Community beyond the hill just above, which narrowly escaped the blaze. Maples, fir, and oaks once stood here next to the tracks. Now the strip is barren—a dry, rocky pit awaiting restoration by Union Pacific.

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