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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Fire Chief Jim Appleton: Lesson of derailment: Ban oil trains

Jim Appleton

Three months after the oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon, where I am the fire chief, I want to offer a few key observations and lessons that may be of use in communities up and down the line.

The sum of those lessons is that no one should have to go through what we did, and that everything possible should be done to discourage crude oil by rail and, ultimately, that the mode and the cargo should be declared unsafe and illegal.

Mosier narrowly escaped the most harmful potential impacts in the June 3 disaster. There were no injuries or loss of life, little permanent property loss and, overall, a commendable response from Union Pacific. There may be a tendency to see this largely positive result as rising from safety enhancements to the tank cars and other risk management elements, including a training drill a few months prior that brought together the local responders, including Union Pacific’s Portland Hazmat crew, on a scenario eerily similar to the Mosier derailment.

And there’s no denying Union Pacific’s risk management made a difference.

But that misses all of the many ways in which the outcome was affected by a series of improbable best-case scenarios. Change one variable – the weather, move the fire even a few yards either direction, make some of the incoming fire departments unavailable – and the outcome would have been vastly different and devastating.

The variable many people seem to be aware of is the complete lack of wind on June 3. Twenty-four hours earlier, the town had west winds gusting to 25 mph, which is typical for early June in Mosier. Dead calm is highly unusual until late August and into fall.

The train derailed entirely within our half-square-mile city limits. The fire was on the upwind west edge of town. Had it been windy that day, fire would have spread immediately into several acres of timber, which would have shed airborne burning debris downwind into the core of our commercial district and well beyond. Eighty percent of my fire district would have been in the path of wind-driven wildfire and smoke. Roads and driveways would’ve been blocked by fire and arcing power lines, and the chaos of everyone reacting unpredictably and in panic.

On a normal windy day, all of the available fire responders would have ignored the oil fire to save and protect lives in the expanding urban and rural infernos. When Union Pacific crews finally arrived four hours later, they would not have had the support of the local responders, which was key to rapid and successful suppression of the oil fire on June 3.

The second big “what if” is a stark realization that the local response (consisting of 19 fire departments assisting Mosier under a system of written agreements known as mutual aid) could have been zero on a different day.

On July 4, Mosier had a house fire (saved!) at 3 a.m. Three Mosier volunteers called right away for mutual aid. It took nearly an hour, well after our firefighters turned the corner on the house fire, before one engine arrived from Hood River County. All of the local agencies that made the difference a month earlier were completely tapped out on the large the Wasson Pond fire 20 miles to the east and unable to send us resources.

And it was windy in Mosier that morning. So, see the wildland nightmare above and realize that if our July 4 call had been the exact same derailment and fire from June 3, two overwhelming disasters would have happened with only a handful of volunteers.

The ultimate lesson from the Mosier derailment is that we simply cannot handle the risk of oil by rail.

State governments especially need to understand that no community, large or small, can reliably resolve anything but best-case scenarios when it comes to oil train accidents. No projects that would add oil trains – such as the proposed Tesoro Savage oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington – should be approved. The risk our communities bear is far out of proportion to any benefit.

At the federal level, it’s past time for regulators and representatives to abandon the assumption that, since unit oil train derailments will continue to happen, improving safety and mitigation is the best approach.

There can be no acceptable level of “safe” in an oil train derailment. A complete ban is the only safe answer.

Jim Appleton is fire chief of the Mosier Fire District.

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