Elected officials in Northwest urge state, federal lawmakers to contain oil train threat

MOSIER, Ore.  -- It’s been more than six months since an oil train derailed and caught fire along the Columbia River in Oregon.

Miraculously, nobody was killed but more than 40,000 gallons of oil spilled during the crash. The underground water table and Columbia River were both contaminated by the spill.

On Monday, dozens of city, county and tribal lawmakers called on state and federal lawmakers to do more to keep people living along train tracks safe.

King County Executive Dow Constantine visited the Mosier crash site and several other small communities who share a concern over the dangers of oil trains.

Even though the derailment and fire in Mosier happened in June, people in the area remember it like it was yesterday.

“There used to be trees and vegetation,” said Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns, describing the crash scene. “Everything looks pretty industrial now.”

Charred ground, blackened trees on the hillside in Mosier still shows their scars where several oil train tanker cars derailed, caught fire and spewed toxic smoke into the sky, oil into the Columbia River, and threatened more than 400 people in the small town of Mosier, in Wasco County.

“We will never be the same and part of that is good, I think we’re invigorated in action,” said Burns.

The Safe Energy Leadership Alliance, chaired by Constantine, aims to push federal and state governments to do more to keep another oil or coal train derailment disaster from claiming property or lives.

“We do not want these materials coming through our communities until they can be made safe,” he said.

“Our fire and our ambulance folks are saying, there’s really nothing they can do,” said Stevenson City Councilwoman Amy Weissfeld.

She worries if the next train derails in her small town, first responders won’t have what it takes to tackle the fire.

“We don’t’ have the foam trailers, and the equipment that’s necessary to respond in those worst-case scenarios,” she said.

Weissfeld is part of an alliance that has galvanized dozens of local elected officials from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and California demanding lawmakers do more to keep people living along the tracks safe.

Local governments have little power to legislate the industry but taxpayers are still responsible for response and mitigation, according to Constantine. He believes railway companies should share the burden.

“I think they should be bearing the cost of protecting our communities because they’re the ones making the profit,” he said.

“There’s basically no benefit at all to the Pacific Northwest,” said Eric dePlace from the Sightline Institute. He argues the city of Seattle faces a unique threat to oil trains since the rails run underneath the city through a tunnel.

DePlace believes Puget Sound area lawmakers should impose a moratorium on oil trains until better safeguards are in place.

“What we’ve been doing so far is basically playing Russian Roulette,” said dePlace. “Mosier dodged a bullet but it was awfully close.”

The safety alliance met in Vancouver, Wash., Monday to talk about how new state-imposed safety regulations will be implemented.

They also planned to discuss a proposed oil export terminal slated for Vancouver, Wash. If approved, it could be the largest of its kind on the continent.