Disaster Zone

Lessons from the Oil Train Spill at Mosier, Ore.

Notes from a briefing on the spill response by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

by Eric Holdeman / August 25, 2016

These are some notes I took from a briefing I attended today on the spill response to the Mosier, Ore., on June, 3, 2016. Perhaps these will help you become better prepared. It shows that planning, training and operational response experience pays off. And a little luck is a good thing too!

Department of Ecology — Oil Spill Response


The first oil by rail refining facility in Washington became operational in December 2013.

Washington’s oil spill response is very well funded. There are four refineries in Washington. Oil spills are a big deal and their exercise program is nationally known and respected.

There have been a couple hundred derailments nationally of oil trains. A few have led to spills.

There are issues with rail and crews. With crude oil unit trains we don’t know where the risk is greatest because of the vast distances they cover. Refineries are fixed facilities that have good records and plans.

We don’t have a complete picture of what the risk is by the movement of oil by rail.

Mosier, Oregon, Oil Train Spill, June 3, 2016

Mosier Fire, one paid staff, the chief, basically a volunteer agency.

No hydrants were in the area. Water is key to controlling a tank car fire. Good planning before the event. Mutual aid agreement was in place for providing water for firefighting.

Mosier, a very small community, agriculture. It has a large Hispanic population and cherry harvest season was just starting.

Oregon side of river is Union Pacific RR, Washington side is where BNSF has its tracks.

Happened on a Friday. There was a derailment of a Union Pacific unit train of crude oil. There was the immediate derailment, but no fire initially. A five-minute delay before the crude oil vapors found an ignition source. The train was bound for US Oil in Tacoma, Wash.

Four rail cars leaking (perhaps only two leaking at first). One rail car was upside down and leaked oil into a sewage line from a broken manhole cover.

Washington Department of Ecology, coordinated response and initiated the response in coordination with the state of Oregon. Anticipated a spill in the Columbia River. For spill events, railroads in general have not been as “polished” when responding to events when compared to the oil industry in general.

Washington State DOE notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They also sent help when it was needed. They have a big checkbook with $2.7B in a fund for spills. They have a tremendous air monitoring capability that was used.

Day of the event there was no wind. There is typically a 20 knot wind in that area. No spread of the fire from car to car. There was a wildland fire, the fire did not spread into the town. The little water available was used to protect the town. It was a disaster that did not happen.

96-car train, 2,741,760 gallons of oil. 19 derailed cars, 542,640 gallons of oil, four leaked and burned, 111,240 gal.

The rail industry does not own the tanker cars. The railroads only own the locomotives. There are different types and version of rail cars. The older cars have lower safety standard and are called DT 111 no shields. Today, those need to be upgraded by 2018. The cars in this derailment were DT 119, similar to the even safer 1231 cars. 1232 cars have thicker steel shells, shields in front and behind the tanks, and better designed and located valves. States cannot regulate rail/tanker car standard. It is a federal rule. The stronger 119 cars kept this from spreading to other cars.

They had their own helicopter to provide air views and assessment. It took six hours to get water on the fire since you needed the pumper trucks.

You cool off the railcars first with water and then put foam on the fire.

When water sticks to the steel on the side of the cars, only then is it appropriate to put foam on the fire.

There was Rock Creek next to the spill leading to the Columbia River. River conditions were great because of a lack of wind for the employment of oil containment equipment on the Columbia River.

A foam trailer was brought in from UP and BNSF brought two foam trailers. UP employees are the ones on the end of the hose providing water. About 2 a.m. foam started to be applied. And about the same time the fire went out. You need to also suppress any vapors. They had vacuum trucks sucking up the oil, and water trucks to collect water off of the ground.

Air monitoring was conducted for the following:

• Explosive vapors
• Benzene
• Hydrogen sulfide
• Carbon monoxide
• Particulate PM 2.5
• Organic vapors

No fatalities, wildland fire, ½ mile evacuation; I-84 was closed. Hot day, high 90s; following day in the 100s. Smoke impacts; no water; no flushing; school closed; 200+ responders; oil in the Columbia river; Environmental, cultural and economic resources at risk.

The city of Mosier limited water led to shutting down the city’s water due to turbidity. The sewer line going to the treatment plant was destroyed — could not flush.

The middle school closest to the event was closed. Then used as the command post. Brought in Porta-potties and fresh water.

Day two, June 4

The oil going into the river was just trickling into the river, maybe 200 gallons of oil into the river. Missing 55K gal of oil. Guess is that about half consumed in a fire. Other goes elsewhere, 51K gal. 10K gal was found at the Waste Water treatment plant. The plant protected the river.

June 5-9

Removed the cars from the incident. Intact cars moved. A main rail line providing goods and services to the Portland metro area.

Had a community meeting, in English and Spanish. A “word by mouth” community. Got lots of input from knocking on doors and getting their concerns.

Had to rebuild the track, 51K missing oil. Soil contamination, 25K Maybe 16,000 burned.

Pumped out damaged trucks that could not be put back on the rail line.

June 10

Last rail cars removed from the site. Cleaned before they were moved from the scene. Pressure washed, rinsed out the inside of the tanks.

Excavation of the contaminated soils continues.

26 key staff as part of the DOE team on scene; plus other administrative staff. Good support from WA DOE Director and Governor’s office. 90 percent of an incident like this is political. The response is much simpler.

This is not a declared disaster. They use a different authority is NW Contingency Plan signed off by our federal partners. Ecology is the lead in WA State.

The Responsible Party pays for the prevention and response. The rail industry has not had that responsibility. In Washington there will be a requirement for the rail industry to have a plan. This will be more equivalent to a fixed facility. BNSF has already made a tremendous financial investment. More needs to be done.

Rail is the least prepared segment of the oil industry. He was pleasantly surprised by the response from the UP. They invested in a team to response to spills. They had their overhead team in place within 12 hours. He was shocked by the effort they expended and their readiness level — which was good and gives him high hopes for the future.

Lessons Learned

• Preparedness efforts payed off. Rail response is a paradigm shift
• Incident security — needs to be improved. People pretending to be what they were not. It took three days to get their command post secured. Not enough law enforcement.
• Air monitoring, for a bigger event, need to do better. Another simultaneous incident could not be supported.
• Public Information/Liaison/Community Outreach, OK, but need to do more.
• Airspace safety found out drones provided (hobbyists) great footage (after the event — need to add an air operations group)
• Luck — environmental factors & location.

The railroad owning the track is the “initial responsible party” until an investigation proves it is someone else. Whoever owns the track is the responsible party.

NTSB was not on scene.