Courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology
Sixteen cars of a Union Pacific train carrying highly volatile Bakken crude derailed over the weekend, and four caught fire, leaking oil into the Columbia River and prompting evacuations.

Columbia River Tribes Speak Out as Flaming Bakken Train Leaks Oil

Terri Hansen

Northwest tribes are reaffirming their stand against oil terminals and rail transport of crude, especially extra-flammable bitumen from the Bakken oil region of North Dakota, after yet another derailment and spill over the weekend—this one into the Columbia River, which many tribes rely on for fishing.

The Union Pacific train carrying the highly volatile oil derailed while traveling alongside the Columbia River on June 3 near the small town of Mosier, Oregon, 30 miles west of Native Celilo Village. As 16 cars went off the rails, four of them caught fire, sending a plume of smoke billowing across the river. The crash released oil alongside the tracks.

The oil train carrying flammable Bakken crude derailed dangerously close to the Columbia River, with some oil leaking into the fish-laden waters. (Photo: Courtesy Washington State Department of Ecology)

It took until early morning of the next day for local firefighters and a wildfire crew to extinguish the blaze. The accident displaced the residents of 74 homes in Mosier and damaged the town's wastewater system.

The train was carrying highly volatile oil produced largely on the Fort Berthold Reservation from the Bakken Field in North Dakota. Crude oil produced in the Bakken region is more dangerous to ship by rail than crude from other areas, a U.S. regulator with the Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said in January 2014, after studying the issue for four months, according to Bloomberg News at the time.

RELATED: Feds Call Bakken Crude Volatile as Quinault Warn Against Oil Rail Transport

Elizabeth Sanchey, the Yakama Nation’s environmental manager and the head of its hazmat crew, arrived on scene the afternoon of the accident. She told Indian Country Today Media Network the Yakama Nation was included in the unified-command model response to the train derailment, and had a crew on site monitoring the situation daily.

An oil sheen was spotted in the river by workers on June 4. It was contained by booms placed by the Washington Department of Ecology. News reports said the oil has disappeared, but “the oil is still in the river,” Sanchey said on Monday June 6, adding that it was dangerous to more than salmon. “This type of crude is very thin, and gets into the sediment, where our lamprey and crayfish feed.”

Sanchey was concerned that another, larger spill could stop a centuries-old way of life for the Columbia River’s tribal fishers.

Tribal representatives were not included in a June 4 press conference that featured spokespeople from Union Pacific Railroad, state environmental agencies, the county sheriff, and Richard Franklin with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Yesterday afternoon we mobilized immediately with multiple resources to assist and work in unified command with our federal state and local brethren,” Franklin said.

Northwest tribes immediately reiterated warnings about the environment in general and salmon fishing in particular. They also invoked rail transport proposals that are under consideration even in the wake of the recent defeat of a coal terminal on Lummi Nation sacred ground at Cherry Point.

RELATED: ‘Historic Victory for Treaty Rights’: Northwest Tribes Rejoice as Army Corps Rejects Coal Terminal

“The accident is a reminder that we should be reducing, not increasing, the number of oil and coal trains along the river,” said Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Chairman Paul Lumley in a statement. “If projects like the currently proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal or Millennium Bulk coal terminal are allowed to move forward, today’s accident will only be the first of what could be many more to come. We cannot stand idly by to this danger to the river, the salmon, and the people and communities who rely on them.”

The practice also jeopardizes treaty rights, the Yakama said.

“We have repeatedly warned of train derailments, corresponding oil spills, and the contamination that could result when these trains are carrying crude oil,” the Yakama Nation said. “These trains and their tendency to derail are grave threats to the Yakama People who exercise their Treaty-protected rights in and around this area. One of our fishers has a fishing site just downriver from this oil fire. His livelihood and well-being, and the well-being of his family, could all be jeopardized by this single derailment.”

Local officials were also upset.

“I think it’s insane,” Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

Sixteen cars of a train carrying volatile Bakken oil from North Dakota derailed and four of them caught fire, as it traveled alongside the Columbia River in Washington State. (Photo: Courtesy Washington Department of Ecology)

The Yakama statement referenced another train that had derailed in western Washington a few days earlier, in which eight fallen cars spilled much of their grain onto the tracks and into water-filled ditches next to the Chehalis River.

“Fortunately, that derailment did not involve oil cars, but the potential danger and damage of derailments to both the environment and the Yakama People cannot be understated,” the Yakama said.

“This time the train was carrying cracked grain. Next time it could easily be crude oil,” concurred Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, in a statement. “It’s what we have been fearing ever since proposals were made to expand the oil terminals here, along with a projected ten-time increase in oil train traffic.”

Moreover, the grain-train crash occurred very near Quinault traditional fishing grounds, “where our people have fished for thousands of years,” Sharp said. “If the train had been carrying oil the spill would have been a major tragic blow to our fishermen, our economy and our way of life.”

“Increasing the amount of oil-carrying trains traveling through our Ceded Lands and along the Columbia River, where we have fished since time immemorial, will only lead to increased derailments,” the Yakama said. “This derailment should serve as a call to action for all people in our region who care about our lands, our waters, and the people and wildlife who rely on the well-being of our environment to take a stand and put an end to the proposals that only promise us more derailments.”

Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish tribal chairman and president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), expressed sympathy and solidarity.

“Our hearts go out to the Yakama Nation and Columbia River Treaty Tribes as they face a potentially devastating impact from the derailment of a Bakken shale oil train into their traditional homeland and waters,” he said. “Our treaties, cultures, economies and bloodlines intertwine through our resources. Today's accident shows us it is not a matter of ‘if it will happen,’ but ‘when it will happen.’ ”

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