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Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis

A catastrophic oil train derailment in Oregon raises fears on Central Coast

Arlene Burns, the mayor of a teensy Oregon town on the Columbia River, was speaking into a bullhorn in a park here the other day, telling a crowd about what happened when a mile-long train loaded with crude oil derailed in Mosier last month.

Sixteen of 96 cars toppled from the tracks. Four exploded. The area, a windsurfing mecca known for its constant high winds, was spared more explosions only because the air was unusually still that day. “If it had been a normal, windy day,” Burns said, “the explosions would have had a domino effect.”

Still, a monstrous plume of black smoke could be seen for miles.

About 200 yards away, 225 schoolchildren were evacuated and began their summer vacation a week early. Their school was quickly converted to an incident command center.

Twenty-three miles of I-84, which runs along the southern edge of the Columbia River, was closed, blocking access to Mosier. 

“Guess who couldn’t help us?” Burns said. “The first responders. They were stuck in gridlock traffic.”

The Mosier fire burned for 15 hours. No one was hurt, but the town’s sewage treatment plant was inundated with 10,000 of the 42,000 gallons of spilled Bakken crude oil — a volatile, highly flammable mix. For days, toilets didn’t flush and showers didn’t work.

Then, while annihilated cars lay by the tracks, their crude oil cargo still inside, Union Pacific Railroad repaired its faulty tracks and prepared to resume shipments. The Mosier city council passed an emergency ordinance asking the railroad to hold off until the area was cleared. Union Pacific ignored the request.

“We were told the tracks were safe,” Burns said.

A preliminary investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration determined that Union Pacific was to blame for the accident. It had failed to properly maintain the tracks and to detect that lag bolts, which fasten rails to their wooden ties, had rusted and snapped. When they broke, the weight of the tanker cars forced the tracks apart, leading to the crash.

What made this finding especially worrisome was that the tracks had been inspected three days earlier.

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“Before this is all over,” Burns said, “they might wish they had killed us off, because we can’t shut up about it.”

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When I read about the Mosier derailment, I immediately thought about San Luis Obispo County, where a proposal to extend a rail spur at an existing Phillips 66 oil refinery in Santa Maria is being vigorously challenged by a group of citizens who don’t want three mile-long oil trains traversing their county each week, bringing air pollution, noise and the risk of derailment. These folks, the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, had invited Burns to speak at Saturday’s rally, which drew about 150 people. It was timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the disastrous oil train crash in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and destroyed an entire town.

The fight has spread beyond San Luis Obispo. Supervisors in counties up and down the state have officially opposed the project. So have at least 22 city councils, from Berkeley to Los Angeles.  The crude oil boom in places like North Dakota has lead to a significant increase in the number of such trains, along with a significant increase in derailments. Most people don’t want potentially explosive cargo barreling through their community.

“One thing we have learned is trains derail,” Burns said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. If it’s corn, OK, birds might be happy. But when you have oil, everyone along the tracks is in a blast zone.”

It’s only by a quirk of law that the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, which will vote on the project next year, even has a say. As it happens, only the federal government controls what is transported by rail in this country. State and local governments have no say over railroads; a huge body of law supports this.

But Phillips 66 needs a permit from San Luis Obispo County to build tracks and oil storage tanks. That is why supervisors and council members up and down the state can scream as much as they like; only San Luis Obispo gets to vote on it. (The California Coastal Commission staff has recommended a no vote on the project as well. In truth, the project is likely to be tied up in litigation no matter what.)

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission, which is slated to vote in September, has already intimated that it supports the project, despite a recommendation by its staff to reject the proposal because of unavoidable impacts on air quality and the potentially serious fallout from a derailment.

In this county, the board of supervisors leans conservative. Two of its five seats are up for grabs in November. “It should be the biggest issue in the election,” said Charles Varni, who helped organize last weekend’s rally. 

::

The other day, when I drove from San Luis Obispo back to Los Angeles, I had images of the Mosier derailment in my head. I imagined explosions and flames.

On Highway One, I drove past the tiny, historic train depot in Oceano, and thought, this could go up like kindling if an oil train tipped over here.  Off Highway One, down 14 winding miles to Jalama Beach, the remote surf and camping spot with legendary afternoon winds that whip the ocean into froth, I thought, a derailment here probably wouldn’t hurt too many people. But near downtown Santa Barbara, there’s a pretty sharp bend in the tracks near downtown. Heavy tankers put enormous stress on curves. A derailment in Santa Barbara? Unlikely, but best not even to think about it.

As long as we depend so heavily on oil, we will have these battles. It makes economic sense for oil companies like Phillips to fight on.

But I take what Mayor Burns said to heart. Oil trains will derail. They are disasters waiting to happen.

San Luis Obispo County supervisors are in a unique position to help protect every Californian who lives within a mile of Union Pacific’s tracks, often called “the blast zone.”

I hope they can rise to the occasion.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com @AbcarianLAT

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