This story was originally published on June 8, 2016, at High Country News.
Tucked against the steep forests and cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge on Oregon’s northern border, the town of Mosier is a modest collection of wooden homes and narrow streets that climb through oaks and droop-topped Douglas fir. From Mosier’s heart, the vast Columbia itself is invisible beyond a screen of trees, Interstate 84, and an increasingly crowded set of railroad tracks. It’s surprisingly quiet here on a sweltering Sunday in June. Though the population is just shy of 450, “town’s usually very busy,” resident Sandra Parksion tells me from a camp chair in the shade, where she sits beside her adult grandson, Adrian Stranz. “There are a lot of bicyclists. Hikers. Joggers. You name it. (Now) you don’t see anybody wandering around. You don’t hear kids hollering and playing.”
There’s also no wind this weekend, a notable absence in the Gorge, where the bluster often clocks in around 25 to 35 miles per hour. And that, some residents and local officials speculate, may be the only reason why Mosier’s still standing.
Around noon the previous Friday, part of a Union Pacific train carrying 96 tanker cars of highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed just below Mosier’s I-84 exit overpass, 16 cars folding together in a great clanking din. Four exploded into a blaze that shot flames up to 50 feet in the air and smeared the sky with greasy, black smoke that was visible for miles.
No one was injured and only 42,000 gallons were spilled or vaporized, a tiny fraction of the total amount of oil aboard. Still, the conflagration underscored the fears of oil-train opponents, who have long warned that a boom in the transport of oil by rail through the region that began in 2012 threatens countless communities along the tracks, as well as the Columbia River itself — the largest salmon fishery in the Lower 48. More than a dozen similar disasters have taken place around the U.S. and Canada since 2013, but…