News Analysis: Emergency Responders Forced to Let Oregon Oil Train Fire Burn

June 4, 2016

On Friday, June 2, an oil train derailed and caught fire in Mosier, Oregon, a town 65 miles east of Portland on the Columbia River. Residents and a nearby elementary school inside the one-mile blast zone were evacuated. There were no reported injuries. But firefighters were notably absent from the scene, which was broadcast for hours from news helicopters. The fire burned until sometime early Saturday morning.

On May 23, 2016, Stand extreme oil campaign director Matt Krogh published a blog on oil train disaster plans and the “burning need for the truth about oil train fires.” The oil and rail industry has launched a public relations effort to deflect public concern over the threat from crude oil trains crossing North America carrying millions of gallons of toxic, explosive crude oil. Oil and rail companies highlight training activities and images of firefighters dousing the flames of burning oil train tank cars. However, concludes Krogh:

“Don’t believe the hype: The scene of a crude oil derailment and fire is an uncontrollable fire. All firefighters can do is evacuate the area and wait for the fire to burn itself out.”

And that is exactly what happened in Mosier on Friday and Saturday. In fact, the accident in Mosier was highly similar to what Krogh describes as a typical oil train derailment incident, based on previous incidents in the US and Canada:

“When an oil train derails at any speed over the puncture velocity of roughly 10 miles an hour (for a common CPC-1232 tank car) a dozen or so cars typically come off the tracks, decouple and are thrown from their wheels. If tank cars are punctured, possibly by something on the ground or the couplers on the ends of the cars, the crude (either Bakken or diluted tar sands, both highly volatile) can easily self-ignite or find an ignition source.”

“Emergency response to oil train incidents is left to local fire departments. But few fire departments have the manpower, training, or equipment to respond to more than a single burning 10,000-gallon tank truck of crude. An oil train tank car carries triple that, and most oil train disasters involve more than a single tank car.”

In Mosier 14 cars reportedly derailed and four tank cars caught fire.

Punctured oil tank cars can leak 30,000 gallons of volatile crude, which flows downhill filling nearby streams and sewers. In Mosier residents were warned not to use water or flush toilets. The burning spilled crude oil forms pool fires, which can heat tank cars and cause thermal tank shell failures, potentially dangerous fireballs that can occur hours after the initial derailment.

Existing safety standards are inadequate, industry has resisted updating rail cars to improve safety, and upcoming federal rules remain years away. Stand is calling for a ban on all crude oil trains. However, government and industry should take immediate steps to protect the safety of the 25 million Americans who live in the oil train blast zone. Those steps include:

Reroute oil trains around dangerous areas and away from critical waterways and population centers.
Model the flow of burning crude, including likely toxic plumes and wildfire, and develop evacuative plans.
Improve faulty information sharing and coordination with emergency officials on oil train hazardous cargo, routes, and scheduling.
Krogh concludes:

“Federal emergency response guidance and fire chiefs have long recognized that there is no effective emergency response to a crude oil derailment fire event. If even one tank car of crude oil is involved in a fire, federal guidelines are clear that firefighters should pull back half a mile and let it burn. And that is another good reason that oil trains are too dangerous for the rails.”

Read the full blog here.


**Image credits to KGW8 News