Wyden, Merkley: Halt oil trains after Eagle Creek Fire

HOOD RIVER, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are calling for BNSF Raliway to halt the transportation of oil and other hazardous materials through the Columbia River Gorge and cite the Eagle Creek Fire as the reason.

The Eagle Creek Fire, which erupted September 2, has so far burned 48,573 acres and is only 46% contained. The risk of rockfall, landslides or flooding is real, prompting the senators to send a letter to BNSF.

The letter wants the railway to postpone moving oil and hazardous materials through the Gorge until the Eagle Creek Fire is fully contained..

“Landslides are always a risk through the Columbia River Gorge,” said Traci Weaver, the public information officer for the Eagle Creek Fire. “Our conditions today are much more different today than a week ago, certainly 2 weeks ago, 3 weeks ago, when this fire started. We aren’t seeing ember showers anymore. We’ve got good solid lines in, 46% of the fire is contained.”

The incident management team said they’ve been in regular communication with the railways and believe the risk is low right now.

“We don’t have a raging fire right now,” Weaver said. “We’ve got some logs that are burning down seeds. We don’t see the burning embers where the fire made those big pushes.”

BNSF passes through the Gorge on the Washington side and Union Pacific on the Oregon side.

Gus Melonas with BNSF told KOIN 6 News by email:

“With the initial threat of the Archer Fire on the Washington side of the Columbia River, BNSF shut down the Col River mainline operation To ALL TRAINS in the area and after thorough inspections, determined it was safe to operate several hours later. We were in contact w the involved agencies. The fires do not present a current threat and we will continue to operate under Federal and BNSF standards.

“If situations threaten the safe movement of any type of passenger or freight trains, BNSF will take necessary steps to protect our railroad employees, passengers and the public.”

Wyden’s office said Union Pacific, as of last week, agreed to stop the transportation of oil tankers.

In a statement, Justin E. Jacobs, the Director of Corporate Relations & Media for Union Pacific, said:

“From the outset, Union Pacific worked and coordinated with the Eagle Creek Fire incident command, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Oregon State Fire Marshal and other state agencies, regarding rail operations through the Columbia River Gorge. Normal rail operations resumed when Interstate 84 reopened. We will continue to communicate with the incident command and state agencies going forward.”

The risk of catastrophic explosions is all too real for those living around the Gorge. In June 2016, a Union Pacific oil train derailed and 16 tankers spilled 42,000 gallons of oil near Mosier.

That’s why Wyden and Merkley want BNSF to stop transporting oil on the Washington side while the Eagle Creek Fire is burning.