Tribal leaders have voiced a stern demand: no more oil and coal trains through the Columbia River Gorge.
Leaders from the Yakama Nation, Lummi Nation, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Umatilla gathered in Mosier Thursday morning to publicly condemn fossil fuel traffic by rail through the Gorge — an impassioned response to Friday’s derailment.
A 96-car Union Pacific train carrying Bakken crude oil left the tracks on the afternoon of June 3 in Mosier along the Columbia River, sparking a fire and spilling oil. A total of 16 cars derailed. There were no injuries reported, but homes were evacuated, Interstate 84 was shut down and the city’s wastewater system was shut down after oil seeped in.
The tribes’ public conference, organized by local environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, was held at the front lawn of Mosier Community School, the command center for emergency responders during the aftermath of the fiery wreck.
As speakers gave testimony, trains carrying mixed goods could be seen rolling along the train tracks north of the Mosier school campus — a sight and sound that underscored the event’s tension.
Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, kicked off the morning’s speeches, thanking the tribes and groups involved.
“We just returned from the river with a sacred ceremony and blessing that I feel is for our community … for our region … is the beginning of healing for us. It’s been a really incredibly traumatic time,” Burns said. “Mosier’s very lucky to be alive and indeed we are very alive and inspired to be a voice for change.”
JoDe Goudy, Yakama Nation Tribal Council chairman, took to the lectern in full traditional regalia, including a feathered headdress.
He called upon political leaders to put in place a “zero tolerance policy” on fossil fuel transport through the Northwest, a fight the tribes have long been embroiled in.
“The reality of the small percentage who reap the economic gain of those endeavors is not worth the long-term consequence that could potentially be endured by you and I,” Goudy said.
In response to new oil and coal terminals proposed in western Washington, Goudy declared, “absolutely no.”
However, Goudy commended first responders and said Union Pacific’s representatives “seem to be very honorable men and women.” Instead, he criticized policies in place that allow fossil fuel traffic to go through tribal treaty land.
Tribal leaders noted June 9 was the 161st anniversary of the Treaty of 1855, which established tribal jurisdictions in the Columbia River region.
Austin Greene, Jr., chairman of Warm Springs Tribal Council, shared Goudy’s concerns and highlighted the risk of future derailments, citing U.P.’s preliminary explanation regarding the cause of Friday’s crash: a faulty “fastener,” or rail bolt.
The tracks had been inspected prior to the derailment and shown no issues, officials said.
“You take a look at the miles and miles of rail that are out there — if it was just one bolt, how many more (derailments) are there going to be in the future?”
Raquel Espinoza, a Union Pacific spokeswoman, said Monday the railroad is federally obligated to carry hazardous materials by rail as a common carrier.
Robert Kennedy Jr., a prominent New York environmental advocate with Waterkeeper Alliance, traveled to Mosier to take part in the tribes’ public conference Thursday.
Kennedy has family ties to the Gorge. He said his niece, Kate Skakel, was sitting on the school’s field when the “bomb train exploded.” He termed oil traffic a “chemical assault on our families, our communities and on our children.
“They did everything right here,” he said of regulatory agencies and the rail industry, including using newly designed railcars and regularly inspecting the tracks, yet the precautions still failed to prevent the derailment in Mosier, he said.
After eight speakers had their say, tribal members united in a ceremonial prayer and song, closing the event.
Tribal leaders aren’t the only elected officials to decry the rail industry’s practice of routing oil trains through the Gorge.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and two House representatives on Monday called for a freeze on oil traffic through the region, echoing a resolution issued Sunday by the City of Mosier.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) advocated for increased railroad safety standards in a speech before the House Wednesday, but he didn’t go as far as to ask for a ban on oil transports.
“We need to make sure we have the most up to date safety, the most up-to-date training and the safest cars and tracks possible. We’re going to stay on this until that happens,” Walden said.