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The Best Of A Worst Case Scenario: How Bad Could The Mosier Oil Train Spill Have Been?

Washington Department of Ecology
In the wake of June's train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, Washington's Department of Ecology placed an oil containment boom in Rock Creek 'just in case.'

If it had to happen, the worst case scenario couldn’t have played out more smoothly. That’s the sentiment in Mosier, Oregon, where a train loaded with highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed two months ago.

On the day of the accident, 14 cars bent and folded like an accordion across the tracks. Four of them caught fire, but the wind was oddly quiet, so a subsequent fire didn’t spread like it could have. And as they careened off the track, oil cars narrowly missed the trestle of an overpass that serves as one of only two routes into town.

“Living here in Mosier, it was the best of a worst case scenario,” local Walter Menge said. “I mean it could have been so much worse.”

Bob Schwarz is a project manager with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality. Lately, he’s been giving a lot of media tours of the accident site.

“We’re standing near a manhole where the lid was sheared off by one of the cars and it caused a lot of the oil to flow into the manhole to the wastewater treatment plant which is about 200 feet from us right now,” Schwarz said. “And that captured quite a bit of the oil fortunately, which kept it from getting into the Columbia River.”

Schwarz said some of that oil did seep into the groundwater, although it’s not clear how much.

“We’re measuring it in hundreds of parts per billion with a ‘b,’ so it’s a very small mass,” Schwarz said. “But the levels are still high enough for us to have to clean it up.”

Despite all the luck, there are still a few unknowns, like where all that spilled oil might go.

“I’m concerned about all the animals in the wetlands,” Schwarz said.

Schwarz wouldn’t say whether the cleanup effort is moving fast or slow. He did say DEQ is ‘pleased with how things are progressing’ and said Union Pacific Railroad, the company that was transporting the oil, has been ‘extremely cooperative.’