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C: WA Dept of Ecology

The safety of crude by rail trains looks set to rocket up the political agenda again after a Union Pacific train carrying volatile Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Oregon’s beautiful Columbia River gorge on Friday.

The accident is the first major derailment for a year and will re-ignite the safety debate over what some people call “bomb trains”.

The derailment forced the closure of an interstate highway, the evacuation of a local school and led to an oil sheen being found on the Columbia River itself.

According to the rail company, some sixteen rail cars derailed on the 96-car train approximately 70 miles east of Portland, near the small town of Mosier. The accident comes three years after the Lac Megantic accident and fire in Quebec, which killed 47 people, as well as numerous other explosions and derailments since.

Over the last three years there have been growing calls to ban crude by rail trains and this latest incident will now add to that pressure.

Part of the problem has been the rapid growth of the Bakken crude trains. The stunning Columbia River gorge has seen shipments dramatically increase over the last few years. And things could get even worse for the local community as crude by rail companies want to build the largest crude rail terminal just 70 miles downstream.

But there are now calls from those who attended the blaze on Friday for these type of shipments to stop.

The fire chief in the town of Mosier, Jim Appleton, who spent Friday night putting out the blaze with other fire-fighters says that carrying explosive Bakken crude from America’s shale fields is “insane”.

“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” he was quoted in the local press over the weekend. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

He said the accident could have been much worse: “If the same derailment had happened just 24 hours earlier, there would have been 35 mph gusts blowing the length of the train” argued Appleton. “The fire very easily could have spread to some or all of the 96 cars behind, because they were in the line of the prevailing wind. That would have been the catastrophe.”

Local politicians are outraged too. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said in a statement: “Today’s oil train derailment in Mosier is a dangerous and tragic event … 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.”

He added that “Without change, this will happen again. These risks are unacceptable, and we must take action to prevent them.”

The accident may well force America’s politicians to re-examine the extended deadline of 2018 which they voted on only eight months ago for rail operators to implement a whole host of advanced safety measures.

In a press conference over the weekend, Union Pacific apologized for the incident. “We apologize to the residents of Mosier, the state of Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest Region,” said spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza.

The cause of the derailment remains unknown.