The Bomb Train Derailment That Sparked a Resistance in the Columbia River Gorge

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.

September 30, 2019
Crumpled oil tankers lay beside the railroad tracks after the 2016 derailment.

Brent Foster/AP

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.

Charles Young was one of the first volunteer firefighters on the scene the afternoon of June 3, 2016. “I saw a big, black clouds of smoke rising, not a great sign,” he says, his Australian accent heavy with the gift of understatement. Young arrived to find 16 tankers splayed at angles, like a toy train toppled by a child’s hand. Three cars were on fire, and one had torn the lid off a sanitary sewer, its oil now flowing directly into the wastewater channel.

Officials at the Mosier Community School, less than a minute’s drive away, evacuated the building. Young’s son Gus, a second-grader, was among the students at the school that day. “With the jets of fire, it was scary,” Young says. “None of us had experience with an oil train fire, and we didn’t know if it might explode.”

The single interstate highway nearby was closed to everyone but emergency responders, separating commuting parents from their children. The disaster exhausted the city water supply even as a statewide multi agency response kicked into gear. Rescue workers pumped in water from the Columbia River, then used fire-retardant foam to finish the job.

The final result: 47,000 gallons of escaped oil, 2,960 tons of oil-drenched soil, contaminated groundwater, and $9 million in cleanup costs. A few weeks after the accident, the Federal Railroad Administration pointed to the derailment’s cause: Union Pacific’s “failure to maintain its track and track equipment.”

Crumpled oil tankers lie beside the railroad tracks after the derailment.

Brent Foster/AP

But things could have been worse that windless day. No one died. Just three years earlier, the infamous oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people—seven of whom were incinerated within blocks of the derailment. Nor was the Columbia River flooded with 230,000 gallons of oil, as with the crude-by-rail accident that fouled Iowa’s Rock River last year.

Still, the impacts scared Gorge communities, nearby cities, Gorge-area tribal nations, and various state officials who asked Union Pacific to stop transporting explosive Bakken crude through the region until a full investigation into the incident was completed. (The railroad declined.)

After the derailment, members of nearby tribal nations, including the Yakama Nation, Lummi Nation, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Umatilla, came to Mosier for a ceremony at Rock Creek Park. The media wasn’t invited and the public wasn’t invited, Burns says. “It was for the river.”

“Mosier’s derailment woke everyone up,” continues Burns, who lives about a half mile from the site of the accident. Many area residents had already been working overtime to stop dangerous shipments of oil and coal from passing through the area, and they quickly redoubled their efforts. For her part, Burns joined the ranks of Climate Mayors and signed Mosier on to the Chicago Climate Charter; the members of both alliances are committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions within their communities. She also began working to raise awareness of the risks of so-called bomb trains beyond her town. “Anyone within a half mile of an explosive derailment could die,” she notes matter-of-factly.

Columbia River Gorge

Columbia Riverkeeper/Paloma Ayala

A Railroad Runs Through It

Stretching ridgeline to ridgeline for 85 miles through the Cascade Mountains along the Washington–Oregon border, the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a 292,500-acre patchwork of private and public lands. Created in 1986, it’s the nation’s largest national scenic area. In the western part of the landscape, more than 80 inches of rain can fall per year, sustaining the mists hanging heavy over old-growth coniferous forests and the waterfalls streaming from mountainsides. (Multnomah Falls is the most famous, drawing more than two million visitors each year.) About 45 miles east of Portland, the Cascades crest at about 5,000 feet, after which the land shifts to a grassy shrub-steppe, with rim-rock bluffs, rolling hills, farms, and ranchlands that can see less than 12 inches of rain annually.

Oil travels by rail from the northeast, through the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, to petroleum terminals around Portland.

Mark Graves/The Oregonian

Numerous raptor species nest in this area at higher densities than anywhere else on earth. Osprey, sharp-shinned hawks, golden eagles, American kestrels, gyrfalcons, northern harriers, white-tailed kites, and northern spotted owls all spend at least part of the year in the area, soaring above sheer, steep walls of rock rising from the ground. Millions of years ago, the landscape was plied like dough, leaving behind cakelike layers of earth and unusual features visible today: table-flat plateaus, clusters of hexagonal columns, and stout volcanic plugs. Then, in the Ice Age, tsunami-like walls of water washed through. Today the gorge is one of the best-preserved continental flood basalt provinces in the world.

The area is also a hot spot for flowers: More than 800 wildflower plant species, from lavender lupines and pink desert parsleys to the magenta-and-yellow blooms of the endemic poet’s shooting star, embellish the gorge each spring. Botanists and nature lovers flock to the gorge for wildflower hikes during this season to take in the vivid spectacle of blooms that disappears by mid-June.

Less renowned are the freight tracks that run on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the scenic area. In 2012 the first crude oil shipments started making their way along these train lines, originating from the tar sands of Alberta or from North Dakota’s Bakken formation. International fossil fuel corporations, such as Zenith Energy and Global Partners LP, have since decided to make the Columbia River Gorge their express lane to the ocean—and to the profits from shipping hydrocarbons to overseas markets. The route’s appeal is simple: At sea level, trains are the cheapest and fastest way to transport heavy loads of coal and oil. And the gorge's deepwater ports at Portland, Oregon; Longview and St. Helens, Washington allow easy transfer to barges bound for refineries in northern Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area. From those hubs, the oil is loaded onto tankers bound for Asian markets.

The Thin Green Line

Some 75,000 people live in the National Scenic Area, next to the railroad tracks and the river. The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based research organization that calls itself “Cascadia’s sustainability think tank,” has dubbed residents who are resisting the fossil fuels export juggernaut the “thin green line.” Indeed, these activists’ passion for the landscape is so strong, they’ve managed to prevent construction of the largest coal and oil facilities ever proposed for the West Coast.

Take the outcry spawned by an oil refinery proposed for a site outside the gorge’s western mouth in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia from Portland. That facility would have mainlined an additional five trains per day, carrying up to 11 million gallons of oil. The targeted area is home to Vancouver’s largest low-income neighborhood, which is separated by train tracks from the rest of the city.

Some 300,000 people from around the region weighed in on the proposal at hearings ranking among the highest-attended in history. At one meeting, which took place just two weeks after the Mosier accident, Arlene Burns testified before the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners. Mosier had narrowly avoided obliteration by the derailment, she told the members of the board. “What if it had been August, when everything is a tinderbox ready for a flame? What if it had been two miles down the tracks and all of that crude would have gone into the Columbia River, into salmon habitat?” she asked them, according to a news report from The Columbian.

Tribal leaders of the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Lummi Nations gathered with environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns, Brett VandenHeuvel of Columbia Riverkeeper, and others in the days following the derailment.

John Chao

Yet despite local resistance, the fossil fuel industry seems determined to find a way through the gorge. Today the railroad is seeking to add another track to boost capacity. Burns points out that the Union Pacific Railroad considers the single track going through Mosier “the bottleneck of the Northwest.” Between 2008 and 2014, the amount of crude oil shipped by rail has increased by more than 5,000 percent, thanks to the nation’s oil fracking boom, which has been unlocking vast amounts of previously unavailable crude and natural gas.

The fiery derailments have continued apace. Mosier capped a string of 14 bomb train accidents across the United States and Canada in a three-year period. These incidents are being closely watched by Columbia Riverkeeper, whose headquarters in Hood River, Oregon, sit about a five-minute drive from Mosier. The train tracks right outside separate the offices from downtown, and the group's windows partly face the railyard. In meetings, says legal and program director Lauren Goldberg, the oil train whistles outside sometimes compete with the advocacy strategizing inside.

“One could view this effort to stop fossil fuel exports on the Columbia River as a foolish game of whack-a-mole, and that’s a fair critique,” Goldberg reflects. She can recount at least a dozen times when safety and environmental advocates defeated one facility proposal, only to immediately face a new one.

In Portland, for example, at the gorge’s western edge, Zenith Energy recently converted a former asphalt plant into an oil storage facility. The company is seeking to quadruple its capacity to store tar sands oil, some of the dirtiest fuel in the world, for international export.

In July hundreds of people convened at the University of Portland conference center to explore options for blocking the facility’s expansion with city officials. The city had approved Zenith’s building permit in 2014, two years before adopting amendments to the Portland Zoning Code banning the construction of new fossil fuel terminals. Mayor Ted Wheeler told the crowd he worried about trains maneuvering through the city’s neighborhoods and opposed exporting fossil fuels. “From my perspective, that’s a nonstarter,” he said.

Public forums—and permitting hearings in particular—have offered a powerful opportunity for residents, health-care workers, environmentalists, and others to speak up in support of protecting public health and local jobs, notes Goldberg. She ticks off the coalitions that have sprung up over the past 10 years: Power Past Coal, Stand Up to Oil, and Power Past Fracked Gas. Each coalition coalesces around preventing oil companies from turning the Columbia into a free-flowing fuel corridor, or what her colleague, Riverkeeper Conservation Director Dan Serres, calls “the flat path between carbon and the markets who want to burn it.”

Arlene Burns greets JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation.

John Chao

Serres grew up outside Portland in an outdoors-loving family. As he grew older, he says, he was shocked to learn the scale of the Columbia River region’s effect on the environment, “not just in terms of pollution to the river and damage to the salmon runs, but the amount of fossil fuel shipped all over the world.”

Regional officials have attempted to make oil-by-rail safer, with limited success. This year, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a rail safety law requiring rail companies to submit oil spill response plans, and Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee signed a measure requiring companies that ship oil by rail to remove volatile gases to reduce explosion and derailment risks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration rolled back a 2015 regulation requiring rail companies to update their antiquated braking systems, technology created around the time of the Civil War. The federal government recently rejected a proposal that would have mandated two engineers in locomotives—a measure that, had it been in place, might have prevented the Lac-Mégantic conflagration. (That disaster began when the sole train engineer left the train unattended overnight.)

More Dangerous Cargo

It’s not just oil that corporations are routing through the gorge. Six coal export facilities have been proposed in the Pacific Northwest in the past decade.

When I tour Columbia Hills State Park with Peter Cornelison, a local field representative for Friends of the Columbia Gorge and former Hood River councilmember, he points out a fine, dark substance glittering on the ground. This is coal dust, which can damage human lungs as well as fragile salmon habitat. The black powder blows off the three or four uncovered coal trains that snake through the scenic area daily from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge and allies filed suit against BNSF Railway in 2013 to stop these daily coal dustings, which were also contaminating the Columbia River. “Pellets the size of cinders were blowing off the tops of cars and accumulating alongside the river, polluting the waterway,” Cornelison says. The coal was piled about four to six inches deep in some places, he says.

Peter Cornelison, field representative for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, leading a hike on the Labyrinth Trail

Peter Cornelison

The railroad removed most of the coal after settling the lawsuit in 2017. While the company didn’t admit to violations, it agreed to pay $1 million for local environmental projects and cleanups and to research physical covers for its trainloads of coal. Two years later, the covers are still not in place.

Activists have seen some wins in their efforts to contain the industry’s growth. In May 2018, Cornelison, along with the Power Past Coal coalition and area tribes, played a part in stopping the construction of the Millennium Coal Terminal. Slated for Longview, Washington, about 70 miles west of the scenic area, it would have been the largest such terminal in North America. The project’s backers, Lighthouse Resources, Inc., had sought to haul 44 million tons of coal per year through the gorge in uncovered trains to export internationally.

“People reacted strongly to being a dumping ground for coal,” says Serres, reflecting on the thousands of citizens who showed up at public hearings to voice their opposition to the terminal. “Grassroots mobilization has had a tremendous impact on decision makers who heard their message and in the process loosened the grip that fossil fuel had over that part of the Columbia River.”

Dan Serres speaking at a rally in Salem, Oregon, against liquefied natural gas exports

Alex Milan Tracy

The terminal’s permits were denied for failure to comply with numerous state and federal laws, and for the project’s interference with tribal nation treaties. Longview was a stop on the 5,000-mile Totem Pole Journey, a red cedar carved by the Lummi Nation House of Tears to raise awareness of the importance of ecological protection and restoration.

But even after four permit denials, the coal company is attempting to use the courts to overcome public sentiment. In January 2018, Millennium filed suit against Washington State officials over the denials; the state is receiving legal assistance from Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Columbia Riverkeeper.

She Who Watches

Long ago, in a village on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge, Coyote—the Trickster—came down the river and asked the villagers if they were living well. “Yes, we are,” they said, “but you need to talk to our chief, Tsagaglal. She lives up in the hill.”

Coyote sought out Tsagaglal and asked if she was a good chief or an evildoer. She said, “My people live well. We have lots of salmon, venison, berries, roots, good houses. Why do you ask?”

And Coyote said, “Changes are going to happen. How will you watch over your people?” She didn’t know. So Coyote changed her into a rock to watch her people forever.

That’s the story of She Who Watches as passed along to Lillian Pitt, a Pacific Northwest Native American and a contemporary fine artist. The rock sits on a hillside overlooking the village of Wishxam, once home to Pitt’s great-grandmother. It’s now within the Columbia Hills Historical State Park, not far from the train tracks, and is one of a set of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs moved here during the frenzy of mid 20th-century dam building along the Columbia River, which also decimated Celilo Falls, a treasured fishing location and economic hub. Visitors can see the artwork only with an approved guide.

A Yakama tribal member fishes in the Klickitat river for fall Chinook salmon.

USFWS - Pacific Region/Flickr

In fact, Native American communities have never abandoned their posts watching over the gorge. A few miles west of the sacred site, a bridge spans the canyon. Here the whitewater rush of Lyle Falls is noisy as the Klickitat River drops over small ridges. Hugging the precipices are several wooden platforms. A set of 20- to 30-foot poles, with nets attached, extends from one. For generations Yakama Nation tribal members have fished here, catching steelhead trout and salmon on their migratory route back to the Pacific Ocean. The fish runs that passed through the gorge were once so bountiful they supported a core trading hub for the region’s tribes, but the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon population has declined dramatically over the past century.

In addition to their habitat growing warmer and less hospitable due to the impacts of climate change and the effects of dams, Columbia Basin salmon face threats from coal contamination. The dust sloughing off trains and into the river can cause its waters to grow more acidic, with lethal consequences for the aquatic food chain. Shayleen Macy is a salmon fisher and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which have relied on the Columbia River for millennia. Macy testified about these dangers to her tribe’s “first foods” at a 2016 public hearing in Seattle, as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management considered reforming a decades-old leasing program giving coal-mining companies subsidized access to public lands.

Lupine flowers growing in the Columbia River Gorge

Brett VandenHeuvel/Columbia Riverkeeper

When the U.S. government took tribal lands, it guaranteed access rights to land and water along with fishing rights at the “usual and accustomed places.” More recently, permitting agencies have acknowledged a treaty-bound right to protected habitat. The treaty parties—including the Cowlitz Tribe, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, among others—have pointed out to agencies that new fossil fuel facility proposals threaten those rights.

In some cases, the tribes have successfully stymied industry this way. When the Union Pacific Railroad applied to expand its tracks next to Mosier, officials for Wasco County and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area rejected the permit on the basis of treaty rights and the fact that an increase in train traffic would threaten fishing sites. (The railroad has not backed down, however, and the case is currently in appeals.)

Alysia and Elke Littleleaf, also members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, testified against coal and oil trains that travel along Oregon’s rivers. The duo operates Littleleaf Guide Service, which takes visitors to catch trout and wild steelhead along the Deschutes River, a northward-flowing Columbia tributary flanked by sage and juniper. Elke sees the oil trains pass by often. In his estimation, their numbers have quadrupled in the past decade. “This is our livelihood, and the trains could decimate our river,” Elke says. “The salmon runs are low as it is, and our first foods are right there and need to be spoken up for.”

Fish are not the only food resource at risk. As a child, Cathy Sampson-Kruse, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse, learned to gather edible plants. Some, like biscuitroot and bitterroot, which typically flourish in rocky, desertlike areas, are collected on special camping trips during the plants’ growing season, which can last for four weeks. But in the past 10 years, the plants have been vanishing or seen for only a week. “We’re all experiencing shorter growth seasons for natural foods that we traditionally harvest: berries, roots, salmon, and trout,” Sampson-Kruse says. Game such as deer, elk, and caribou are suffering as well.

Cathy Sampson Kruse, Umatilla tribal leader, and her daughter Mariah Sampson leading a prayer at the “No LNG Rally” in Salem

Alex Milan Tracy

A social worker and a “proud mama bear” of 8 children, 12 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren, Sampson-Kruse is dedicated to saving what’s left of these first foods for future generations. Her climate activism is extensive, and she’s been involved in the fight against coal exports since the beginning. In 2013 she was arrested for blocking a mega-load train shipment of equipment bound for the Canadian tar sands.

According to a report from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, temperatures in the gorge are expected to rise by 1.8 to 6.9 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2050s. Such a rapid change in climate would spell trouble for the state’s lush forests, which store billions of tons of carbon. Increased fires, insects, and diseases would eat away at trees, limiting the habitat for the region’s plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. Changes in precipitation patterns could mean less snowfall (and less snowmelt in the spring), leading to a decrease in clean headwaters for the Columbia and its tributaries.

Yet the trends—and corporate and political forces behind them—are not unstoppable. The Canadian tar sands industry once claimed it was on track to grow from 1.8 million barrels a day in 2012 to 5.2 million barrels a day by 2030. But recent reports anticipate that growth in the Canadian oil and gas sector will slow to just 300,000 barrels per day by 2024. Data show that investment in the tar sands declined in both 2017 and 2018. In 2019 the Alberta government curtailed oil production, creating a major barrier to the industry’s future growth. The American power sector, meanwhile, has continued its march away from coal and toward zero-carbon energy resources, according to a report released in June by power producers Entergy and Exelon, Bank of America, and NRDC, among other groups.

The people of the Columbia River Gorge, then, have good reason to keep up their fight: Momentum is on their side. As Serres points out, the oil and coal industry’s growth along the channel is “in shocking conflict with what the region is trying to accomplish with steering away from extreme fossil fuels.” And the thin green line is thickening.

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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