oil

The U.S. Department of Energy is considering the future of a public asset worth tens of billions of dollars: the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Editors' note: Invisibilia's back! Each Friday for the next seven weeks, we'll feature an excerpt from the latest episode of the NPR podcast. We're also creating original features for Shots that explore the Invisibilia theme of the week. This Saturday, Hanna Rosin asks whether social norms have changed enough so that boys are no longer afraid to cry. On Sunday, we explore how the norms for sickness and health vary around the world.

Just after noon on June 3, the two-man Union Pacific crew hauling 96 cars of Tacoma-bound crude oil felt a tug on the train as they passed through the Columbia River Gorge.

The train’s emergency brakes triggered unexpectedly, according to railroad union leaders, indicating bad track or equipment failure could be to blame. The crew looked back and saw smoke — the beginnings of a fire that would burn for much of the night.

A year before 16 of its oil tanker cars derailed and caused a fire, a spill and an evacuation order in the Columbia River Gorge, Union Pacific lobbied against stronger oversight of oil trains moving through the Northwest.

The railroad industry lost in Washington. But in Oregon, it won.

Tribal leaders from around the Northwest gathered Thursday in Mosier, Oregon, not far from the site of last week’s oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge.

They prayed and spoke out against oil trains.

“We should not have any fossil fuels coming through our ancestral homeland, especially along the river," said Austin Greene, the tribal chairman for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wants oil trains to slow down and safety improvements to speed up. Inslee said Wednesday that he personally delivered that message to the CEO of Union Pacific and the executive chairman of BNSF over the last 48 hours.

oil train, transportation
Flickr Photo/Russ Allison Loar (CC BY NC ND 2.0)/https://flic.kr/p/aqtNAn

The oil train spill June 3 in Mosier, Oregon was the latest of about 20 oil train derailments in the US since 2013. The group Earth Justice tracks derailments and spills with an online map.

One Washington lawmaker says there's a way to limit the danger of derailments or oil spills in this state: build an oil pipeline. (The state already has some fuel pipelines, but not one that's state-wide.)

Railroad industry experts are questioning the early explanation from Union Pacific for why its oil train crashed in Mosier, Ore.

Union Pacific said the preliminary indications from its investigation are “the failure of a fastener that connects the rail to the railroad tie,” according Justin Jacobs, a railroad spokesman.

Union Pacific confirmed Tuesday it won’t be sending trains of crude oil through Mosier, Ore., until derailed cars there are cleared, the crash has been investigated and the town has adequate notice.

On Monday, a Union Pacific spokeswoman said the lack of oil trains through Mosier was simply the result of railroad scheduling, not a railroad decision to halt shipments through the town.

"We don't run very many crude oil trains through here," she said. "Again, remember crude oil is 1 percent of the shipments that we carry."

Following Friday’s derailment in the Columbia Gorge, environmental groups are petitioning the Obama administration to ban rail transport of the most flammable kind of crude oil. And Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said on the floor of the U.S. Senate Tuesday that it was clear that Oregon got lucky -- this time.

The black Union Pacific oil cars that derailed Friday in the Columbia River Gorge are lined up next to the tracks that cut through Mosier, like oversized, crumpled beer cans discarded with little regard.

Crews spent Monday continuing their cleanup efforts, pumping crude oil out of the derailed cars into tanker trucks that drove the oil away from the scene. Around mid-morning, officials turned their efforts to newly discovered oil in a pipe leading from Mosier’s water treatment plant to the Columbia River.

Friday’s oil train derailment and fire comes as Washington state prepares to put new oil shipment safety rules into effect. In fact, the derailment in the Columbia Gorge happened just as the first public hearing on those rules was wrapping up in Vancouver, Washington.

Jim Appleton, the fire chief in Mosier, Ore., said in the past, he’s tried to reassure his town that the Union Pacific Railroad has a great safety record and that rail accidents are rare.

He's changed his mind.

After a long night working with hazardous material teams and firefighters from across the Northwest to extinguish a fire that started when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed in his town, Appleton no longer believes shipping oil by rail is safe.

Black smoke billowed high into the sky above Interstate 84 Friday afternoon after 11 oil train cars derailed near Mosier, Oregon. At least one of the derailed cars spilled oil and caught fire.

The oil train fire in the Columbia Gorge is the first one since Oregon lawmakers approved funding for a hazardous materials incidents plan last year.

Washington state officials are holding a public hearing Friday in Vancouver on new rules targeting oil train safety.

One proposed rule would require trains carrying refined or crude oil to submit spill response plans that the state would approve.

Another proposed rule would make oil terminals and refineries alert the state that they plan to receive crude oil. Right now, companies that move oil by rail aren’t required to share that information with state officials.

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