Union Pacific at Fault for Oil Spill, Feds Say

     PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Sixteen oil train cars derailed in the Columbia River Gorge and caused a massive fire because of Union Pacific’s maintenance of its tracks, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a preliminary report on Thursday.
     Union Pacific had voluntarily stopped sending oil shipments through the Columbia Gorge after the June 3 derailment that leaked 42,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil, set four oil cars ablaze and forced the evacuation of nearby Mosier, Ore.
     But the company announced to state officials on Wednesday that it would again send oil trains over the same track starting sometime this week.
     As Courthouse News reported at the time of the derailment, an April inspection report found safety problems in the part of the track where the derailment happened.
     The Federal Railroad Administration’s April report listed loose bolts, loose rail braces, and an improper fit between switch points and stock rails less than one mile before the derailment site.
     On Thursday, the administraion released a new report blaming the company for the derailment and citing similar safety problems, such as broken lag bolts. Broken bolts allowed the tracks to widen in curves, causing 16 cars carrying heavy crude oil to derail.
     “Unless or until additional details come to light, the administration has made the preliminary determination that Union Pacific’s failure to maintain its track and track equipment resulted in the derailment,” the agency’s preliminary factual report states. “Broken and sheared lag bolts, while difficult to detect by high-rail, are more detectable by walking inspection combined with indications of movement in the rail or track structure and/or uneven rail wear, and are critically important to resolve quickly.”
     The report also found that the fire, which sent plumes of smoke billowing into the sky for 14 hours, might have been much less severe had the train been equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
     Union Pacific Spokesman Justin Jacobs questioned that assertion. He said in a statement that electronically controlled pneumatic brakes have “yet to meet service reliability standards in industry tests.” The train that derailed in Mosier was equipped with distributed power, which Jacobs said has a similar braking capacity to electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
     Jacobs also said the company was replacing lag bolts with rail spikes and instituting walking inspections.
     Oregon Gov. Kate Brown renewed her calls Thursday to stop the travel of oil trains in Oregon.
     “The Federal Railroad Administration’s preliminary Mosier derailment report calls attention to serious safety concerns and the need for improved track inspections,” Brown said in a statement. “I expect the final investigation report to be completed quickly and again call on rail operators to halt oil trains in Oregon until the strongest safety measures are put in place by federal authorities to protect Oregonians.”
     Jacobs told Courthouse News that Union Pacific is required by its status as a federal common carrier to deliver any commodity properly packaged by its customers, including oil.
     The company’s internal investigation found that problems with lag bolts caused the derailments, Jacobs said, adding that he “wouldn’t speculate” on whether the company should have found the problem during its inspections.
     “Our goal is to prevent all derailments,” Jacobs told Courthouse News. “Everything we do is designed to make things safer.”
     The train was traveling at 25 miles per hour when it derailed — five miles per hour below the area speed limit. But the administration said Union Pacific will be temporarily restricted to 10 miles per hour in the Portland subdivision, which includes the area around Mosier where the derailment happened.
     Union Pacific could be facing penalties.
     The railroad administration said it is considering “potential enforcement actions, including violations, and other actions to ensure Union Pacific’s compliance with applicable safety regulations.”

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