U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., held a private debriefing session Sunday morning with Mosier firefighters about the June 3 oil train derailment in their community.
The federal official then held a public meeting that was attended by emergency responders from multiple agencies, government officials, tribal leaders and interested residents.
“You drive through the Gorge on a beautiful Sunday morning and it kind of confirms what’s at stake,” said Wyden in his greeting.
“In my mind Mosier has set the gold standard for the country about how to deal with enormous challenges.”
He praised firefighters from across the region for orchestrated actions that quickly snuffed the fire that ignited in four of the 16 tankers that derailed on Union Pacific tracks in town.
“It seems an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to our first responders,” he said.
Wyden presented Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton with a flag that had been flown over the nation’s capital in honor of the rural department. In return, Appleton provided the T-shirt worn by firefighters from the town with a population of about 400.
The crisis in Mosier, said Wyden, had brought home the need for greater track safety. In addition, he said many of the train cars used to haul flammable materials needed to be upgraded
He said there also needed to be more funding to help at-risk communities along the tracks.
Toward that end, Wyden said 11 senators, including Jeff Merkley, who also represents Oregon, had sponsored the Hazardous Materials Rail Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2015.
The bill establishes a fee for use of DOT-111 tank cars, those of lower quality than later models, that are used to transport crude oil, ethanol or other hazardous materials. The fee would start at $175 per shipment and increase each year.
Under the act, $100 million of that funding would be used to reroute tracks handling large volumes of flammable liquids away from population centers and hire more railroad inspectors.
Another $45 million would be expended over three years to train first responders in communities along tracks.
The legislation would also provide tax credits to companies that update tanker cars within the next three years to meet new standards.
The legislation also requires more widespread reporting of hazardous shipments, along with a U.S. Department of Transportation study to determine whether longer freight trains pose greater safety risks.
“I’m not going to allow Oregonians to be tied to unsafe tracks and unsafe cars,” said Wyden. “This is a fresh approach and my sense is that you make it attractive to get cars that are a problem off the rails.”
Appleton told Wyden that life for Mosier residents had been completely disrupted by the derailment and some had been called upon to temporarily leave their homes.
He said emergency responders were suffering from sleep deprivation due to the numerous challenges that had to be dealt with following the incident.
Mutual aid agreements with five counties in two states, said Appleton, had enabled the train fire to be extinguished without harm to property or any casualties.
What he had learned in recent days from Union Pacific was that the Mosier derailment was the second incident involving defective fasteners to have occurred in the past 16 years.
“What I know now is that it was pretty unlikely,” said Appleton, praising the railroad for its continual efforts to improve safety.
Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns acknowledged that UP was required by federal law, as a “common carrier,” to transport all commodities, even if they are dangerous.
The federal government can relieve the company of this duty in regard to oil cars and Burns asked Wyden to make that happen.
“This protected place, this scenic area, is fast becoming a super highway for fossil fuels,” she said. “We need your help because, as a little town, because we don’t have the expertise to know how this works.”
If an oil train derailed and dumped its load in the Columbia River, Appleton said there would be extensive damage to fisheries and riparian areas.
“It’s the material not the rails,” he said.
Wyden vowed to look at a roster of what was carried by trains and then determine how to proceed.
Brian Schimel, director and principal of Mosier Community School, told the senator that “fortunate” was the word that came to mind when he thought back to the crisis.
“I’ve met with staff members off-site and they are still in shock but very appreciative of everyone’s efforts,” he said.
Schimel thanked North Wasco County Schools District 21 Superintendent Candy Armstrong for immediately going into action when she heard about the derailment. He said Armstrong immediately got busses rolling towards Mosier to evacuate about 200 students.
“I’ve never worked in a school that was so close to a railroad track,” he said.
Because students missed the last three days of school, Schimel said they were denied closure for the year, as well as promotional activities, some of which had been rescheduled for this week.
He agreed with Appleton and Burns that federal policy regarding train transports needed to be revisited – and a look given to alternative routes for hazardous cargo.
Burns also asked if Wyden could look into having non-toxic foam used to fight train fires instead of the chemical compound that was full of toxins.
“We want to be an example of a sustainable community,” she said.
Wyden said he would also look into that issue.
The Dalles Mayor Steve Lawrence was present and said gases from North Dakota’s Bakken oil needed to be made inert to defuse the fire potential, which Wyden also said he would look into.
Dan Spatz, a city councilor from The Dalles, said national energy policy needed to be revisited to determine if coal, oil and gas should be sent overseas, primarily to Asian markets. If transports were reduced, he said communities such as Mosier would be less at risk.
“I’m very sympathetic with that point,” said Wyden. “Let’s put this conversation in the ‘to be continued’ department.”