Oil Train Derailment Focuses New Attention On Train Accidents


Many Minnesota residents live near rail lines carrying trains loaded with crude oil from the Bakken region of western North Dakota and eastern Montana. The June 3, 2016, derailment of a Union Pacific train in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area once again highlights the potential dangers of oil-carrying trains, particularly those using older tanker cars. The early June accident occurred about 70 miles east of Portland in the town of Mosier.

Bakken Crude to Washington State

According to Reuters, Bakken crude was en route to a Tacoma, Washington, refinery approximately 200 miles from the site of the derailment. Television crews captured images of flames rising from the overturned tanker cars as smoke billowed up. Four of the cars caught fire, and at least one released oil.

The Mosier fire chief discussed the challenge of putting out such a fire. He said that fire-retardant foam could not be applied until the tank cars had sufficiently cooled. This required firefighters to spray 1,500 gallons of water every minute for approximately nine hours. Firefighters continued to extinguish the flames until approximately 2 a.m. Next, crews had to offload oil from the derailed tank cars. Ultimately, it was necessary to remove 16 of the rail cars on flatbed trucks.

Dozens Evacuated

Immediately following the derailment, a 32-year-old resident of the area living about 100 feet from the site was instructed by a sheriff’s deputy to evacuate. Interstate 84, a major highway passing through the Columbia River Gorge, required closure until approximately 11 p.m. that evening.

Mosier is a city of 440 residents, and almost 25 percent of them were subject to the evacuation order. Mosier Community School was also evacuated. The day after the derailment, residents living within a quarter-mile of the accident had not yet been allowed to return to their homes.

Hazmat railroad crews responded to the derailment with oil containment booms and firefighting foam. The next day, an oil sheen was detected across a small portion of the Columbia River. It was uncertain whether the oil came from the derailment. However, it did highlight the risks to migratory salmon that oil trains might pose in the Columbia River Gorge. Approximately 1000 feet of containment boom was deployed to deal with the oil sheen.

According to required federal disclosures, in March 2016 alone, Union Pacific transported about 75,000 barrels of oil on each of six trains through the area. A spokesperson for the company said that the most recent inspection of the railroad track in the area was on May 31. Despite a review of rail conditions only days earlier, investigators later determined that the train passing through the Columbia River Gorge derailed due to faulty track. The magnitude of the accident renewed debate over older tanker cars particularly subject to rupture in train derailments.

Frequent Oil Train Derailments

Since 2014, there have been a number of serious oil train derailments in the United States and Canada. In some of these train accidents, tank cars ruptured, sometimes erupting in flames.

May 6, 2016 – A derailment near Heimdal, North Dakota, caused a crude oil fire involving six tanker cars. Dozens of area residents required evacuation.

March 5, 2015 – A BNSF train loaded with crude oil derailed near Galena, Illinois. Twenty-one cars carrying Bakken crude derailed and caught fire.

February 16, 2015 – A broken rail caused a CSX freight train to derail in West Virginia. Over 1,000 people required evacuation after tank cars Bakken crude caught fire.

January 20, 2014 – A CSX oil train derailed in Philadelphia. Crews had to drain the tanker cars, and this required periodic closures of the Schuylkill Expressway. Three days later, a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude derailed near Ross, North Dakota.

Train in Minnesota Before 2013 Quebec Derailment

Although these derailments did not result in injury or death, many are mindful of the tragic events of July 5, 2013, when a Montréal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train arrived in Québec loaded with 2.45 million gallons of crude oil. The 72-car train originated in New Town, North Dakota, and it had traveled through a number of states in the upper Midwest, including Minnesota. A derailment killed 47 people and forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 individuals.

This accident also focused attention on older tank cars. The class-111 cars that comprised this train were all manufactured between 1980 and 2012. They did not feature recent advances like a full head shield, jacket and thermal protection.

The Canadian government found that virtually every tank car that derailed failed in one or more areas, including the shell, top and bottom fittings and/or pressure relief devices. The breaches released oil which further fueled the fire. The investigation concluded that newer safety features would have reduced damage to the tank cars, possibly limiting the destructive force of the fire.

Positive Train Control May Help

The Reuters article also highlights the fact that the Oregon derailment occurred just eight months after Congress extended the deadline for railroad operators to implement positive train control (PTC) from 2015 to 2018. PTC eliminates certain derailments, especially those caused by human error.

The derailment of oil tanker cars along the Columbia River and the subsequent evacuation serves as a reminder of the hazards that train accidents pose to people and the environment. And, the Oregon accident invokes memories of derailments and ruptured tanker cars that took lives, especially the Quebec disaster that killed almost four dozen individuals. Potentially, heavy smoke and toxic fumes may also injure residents when derailments occur.

When a person is injured or killed as either a passenger on the train victim of a derailment it is often possible to seek monetary damages in the state’s civil courts. It is often possible to pursue compensation for medical expenses, pain, suffering, lost wages and potential long-term health consequences.

If you or a loved one is a victim of a train accident, we make it possible for you to speak with a train accident attorney free of charge. We fight hard to protect the interests of our clients, and to get them the full compensation to which they are entitled under the law. To learn more about our services, please contact us.