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Track safety issues prompt ODOT to seek moratorium on oil trains in gorge

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA RIVERKEEPER - A derailed oil train fire sent a plume of black smoke into the sky June 3 near the town of Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge. ODOT officials want a moratorium on oil trains in the Gorge until tracks can be inspected for safety issues.Oregon's Department of Transportation has asked the federal government to put a moratorium on oil trains in the Columbia River Gorge and certain other parts of the state because of concerns that existing inspections might be unable to detect the problem that caused the Mosier derailment June 3.

The request follows preliminary findings by Union Pacific that the metal fastener system that connects the railroad tie to the rail failed, causing the railway to break apart and derailing 16 oil tanker cars.

Multiple inspections by the state and Union Pacific in the days leading up to the fiery derailment failed to detect the defects in the metal fasteners.

“Until the underlying cause of the bolt failures is understood, and a means of detecting this defect is developed, we request a moratorium on running unit oil trains over sections of track that contain track fasteners of this material within the state of Oregon,” wrote Hal Gard, administrator of the state’s Rail and Public Transit Division, in a June 8 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The railroad administration is conducting its own investigation into the cause of the derailment, which sparked a fire, forced the evacuation of 100 people and spilled oil into the ground and the city’s sewer system.

Despite hiring four additional inspectors last year, the state has no effective way to inspect and test the integrity of those bolts. State inspectors conduct only visual inspections, and defects in the kind of bolts used along the Columbia Gorge are not visible when looking from above, said Matthew Garrett, director of the state transportation department.

Union Pacific conducts a stress test of those metal fasteners, called lag bolts, once every 18 months, using a special vehicle that tests the strength of the bolts, said Justin Jacobs, a spokesman for Union Pacific.

The bolts are used specifically on curves on the railway. There are about 70 curves in Oregon, where the bolts are used, Jacobs said.

“What that vehicle does is it is designed to go down the tracks and put lateral pressure on rails so if there is a broken bolt, it will detect it,” Jacobs said. “That vehicle provides equivalent pressure of a locomotive to the rails.”

That specialized equipment is “above and beyond” what the railroad and ODOT does in their inspections, Garrett said.

Union Pacific now plans to use that vehicle to inspect the bolts four times a year and plans to replace the bolts with a newer version when inspectors find they are needed, Jacobs said.

State transportation officials have requested Union Pacific’s inspection records, data on the last stress test on the Columbia Gorge line and construction plans. Gard said he wants to halt oil train traffic in the state until the railroad administration and his agency can verify that Union Pacific’s plans are sufficient to keep people safe.

“I need to be able to stand with a straight face and say this track is as safe as it possibly can be,” Gard said.

The Federal Railroad Administration plans to start a technical investigation specifically into the bolts and is conducting intense inspections on both sides of the Columbia River. ODOT yet to receive word on whether the federal agency will grant his request for a moratorium on train traffic until then.

Union Pacific has a history of violations in the state. Nationwide, the company has paid more in penalties in the last two years than any other railroad, according to The Oregonian. None of the Oregon violations concerned defective railroad bolts, which caused the Mosier derailment, the newspaper reported June 10.

Several state leaders earlier last week also requested a moratorium on oil trains in the state, including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Gov. Kate Brown, and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici.

In the meantime, Union Pacific trains continue to carry products through the Gorge. The company is not running oil trains until further notice.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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