While the Hood River City Council has led the way in voicing fiery opposition to coal trains passing through Hood River, the battle over the toxic transports is just beginning. An “up-river” Mesa, Wash., derailment accident on July 2 may just add fuel to those flames.
A 125-car coal train derailed along the Columbia River near Pasco, Wash., around 6:30 p.m., spilling a large quantity of coal, and according to residents, sending a cloud of black coal dust into the sky. By 8:30 p.m., 40 personnel were dispatched by the railroad to respond to the accident.
According to press statements from Gus Melonas, public affairs director of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, 20 of the train’s cars landed in a twisted pileup and 10 more were tipped on their sides.
“Oregon and Washington are now threatened with six new coal export proposals, which together would require 30 full and 30 empty new coal trains every day,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental protection organization. “This recent derailment may foreshadow additional problems if coal train frequency increases.”
The train was heading west with full carloads of coal from Powder River Basin in Wyoming, destined for British Columbia and ultimate exportation to Asia.
According to OPB’s EarthFix reporter Courtney Flatt, following the accident, strong winds and cleanup efforts caused dust to blow from the dumped coal which lay in piles along the accident zone. Fire crews doused the pile with water to keep it from catching fire. “Powder River Basin coal is known to combust when stored in large piles,” noted Flatt in her report.
As a result of the crash, the main rail line near Pasco, Wash., was blocked and crews worked to reroute rail traffic through Ellensburg and Wenatchee.
Melonas reported that no injuries occurred during the incident and that no environmental threat resulted from the incident. The cause of the derailment is still under investigation.
BNSF is in the process of using heavy equipment, brought in from Pasco, to reopen the line and move the wreckage. Tracks damaged in the derailment are slated for replacement.
Melonas anticipates the spilled coal would be removed later in the week but added that damaged coal cars may lie near the tracks for several weeks during cleanup.
“CRK is involved with opposing these increased coal exports because we think the export terminals and coal transportation are the biggest threats facing the Columbia River today,” said VandenHeuvel. “Coal dust is dirty, toxic and the proposed dramatic increase of up to 30 new coals trains every day along the river is unprecedented.
“Our state leaders will have a choice very soon about whether to approve or deny the coal export terminals — if people are concerned they should weigh in with their concerns with both Gov. Kitzhaber and Gregoire,” said VandenHeuvel.
According to multiple news reports around the country, coal trains suffered three major derailments in two days on July 3 and 4.
In addition to the crash near Pasco, a BNSF coal train derailed in Pendleton, Texas, on July 3, flipping 43 cars and spilling coal. On July 4, a coal train collapsed a bridge in the Chicago suburbs, causing 38 cars to derail, spilling coal, blocking the Union Pacific rail line and shutting down traffic. At least one individual was killed in that incident.
“A derailment in the Gorge would be a disaster,” noted VandenHeuvel. “If this derailment had happened just 20-30 minutes later, it could have been at the river.”