Derailed Oregon Oil Train Catches Fire, Spills Crude Into Columbia River

After extinguishing the wreckage of a Union Pacific Corp. tanker train east of Portland, crews spot sheen on scenic waterway.

byMax Prince|
Derailed Oregon Oil Train Catches Fire, Spills Crude Into Columbia River

Officials in Oregon are working to contain an oil sheen that has appeared on the Columbia River following the derailment of a Union Pacific Corp. tanker train. Sixteen of its 96 cars came off the tracks on Friday; four of them caught fire, leading to the evacuation of nearby residents. No fatalities have been reported.

The train, which was carrying a load of Bakken crude from North Dakota to Tacoma, Washington, jumped its rails at 12:20 p.m. local time near the town of Mosier, roughly 70 miles east of Portland. Firefighters were able to contain the wreckage, extinguishing the blaze around 2 a.m. Saturday morning. At sunrise, responders spotted the Columbia River sheen at the mouth of Rock Creek. They’ve since deployed 1,000 feet of boom in an effort to contain it. The cause of the Union Pacific tanker derailment, and how much oil has spilled as a result, is still unknown.

Between 2008 and 2013, driven by low prices of domestic crude, the number of U.S. oil railcars increased some 4,000 percent. Regulators have focused on reducing the possibility of fire; North Dakota, for example, now requires rail-bound oil to receive a chemical treatment to reduce combustibility. Still, some feel that infrastructure has lagged behind the oil-by-rail boom. That sentiment was echoed by Oregon U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who said in a statement Friday that his state’s “fire departments are on record saying they don’t have the resources to deal with oil train fires.”

The Union Pacific accident is the latest in a series of recent oil-by-rail disasters. In July of 2013, a Maine & Atlantic Railways tanker caught fire after it derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. The accident killed 47 people and desecrated the town. Since then, no less than 13 instances of oil tanker train derailments in North America have been reported.