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Disaster averted as Oregon oil train derailment sparks fire, shuts water treatment plant

The fire could have been disastrous when 16 of 96 oil tank cars went off the tracks; the Mayor said had high winds blown differently, the fire could have burned all the way to Omaha, Neb.


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SEATTLE—Track failure was likely the cause of the oil train derailment in Oregon, an official with Union Pacific Railroad said June 5.

Dozens of residents of the Columbia River town of Mosier, Ore., have been given the all clear to return home, after crews made progress in repairing damage caused by the derailment of an oil train that sparked a fire.

About a hundred people—a quarter of Mosier’s population—were evacuated June 3 from after several cars carrying the volatile oil went off the tracks.

But officials said late Sunday night that the Wasco County Sheriff’s office lifted the evacuation order, after progress was made in cleaning up the derailment and restoring essential services, including a waste water treatment plant.

The Mosier waste water treatment plant and sewer system were not operational yesterday. Residents were told not to flush their toilets and advised to boil any water before they drank it or cooked with it. Mosier exhausted its water reserves fighting the fire and cooling the trains. Burns said the aquifers were completely depleted.

Officials have been conducting continuous water and air monitoring since plumes of black smoke filled the sky near the scenic Columbia River Gorge.

A statement by incident spokeswoman Judy Smith of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said 10,000 gallons of oil had been removed from the plant. She said water and sewer services were usable, but a boil water order remains in effect.

At a news conference earlier in the day, Espinoza said a failure of the fastener between the railroad tie and the line was the likely cause of the problem, but more investigation will be required before railroad officials know for sure.

Union Pacific inspects the tracks that run through the town twice a week, and the most recent inspection took place on May 31, Espinoza said. Union Pacific had completed a more detailed and technical inspection of this section of track at the end of April and found no problems.

No injuries were reported in the derailment in which 16 of 96 tank cars went off the tracks and started a fire in four of the cars. Authorities were working Sunday to clean up an oil sheen in the Columbia River near the scene of the derailment.

Mosier’s mayor and fire chief said the derailment and fire in their town could have been a lot worse.

Fire Chief Jim Appleton says the usual amount of wind in Mosier—about 25 mph—could have turned this incident into a major disaster, destroying the town and sending flames across state lines.

“My attention was focused on the incident that didn’t happen,” Appleton said. “It probably would have burned its way close to Omaha, Nebraska. That’s how big it would have been.”

Mayor Arlene Burns said the people of Mosier were “incredibly lucky.”

“I count myself lucky that we dodged a bullet,” Burns said, after noting that her own child was at school within a few blocks of the derailment. “We hope that this is a wake-up call.”

Including Friday’s incident, at least 26 oil trains have been involved in major fires or derailments during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, according to an Associated Press analysis of accident records from the two countries. The worst was a 2013 derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Damage from that accident has been estimated at $1.2 billion or higher.


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