Banning Oil & Coal Trains in the Columbia River Gorge: What Are We Waiting For?

Paul Cienfuegos’ June 7th, 2016 Commentary on KBOO Evening News


(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at,, or subscribe via ITunes. Listen to this one HERE.)


Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.


Last Friday, the Columbia River dodged a bullet that may very well forever alter the ecological risk-taking that our state and federal agencies have allowed for decades. A 96-car oil train partially derailed while passing through Mosier, a small town of 440 residents. Owned by Union Pacific Corporation, and originating in the Bakken crude oil fields of North Dakota, the train was traveling slowly on a section of straight track when it derailed. Sixteen of its 96 cars left the track and four caught on fire – three of them rupturing and releasing at least 10,000 gallons of crude oil into the sewage treatment plant, which had to be immediately shut down. And now the town has no safe source of water because the firefighters drained the entire aquifer fighting this enormous fire. Imagine – because an oil train derailed next to a small town, its residents can no longer safely flush their toilets, and they’re going to have to strictly ration their water use until the rains return at the end of the year. But it could have been much much worse. Here’s how the Oregonian’s reporter Rob Davis opened their lead story on page one a few days ago:


800 feet in either direction, and Friday's oil train derailment outside the small Columbia River Gorge city of Mosier might've sent flaming tank cars into a lake in a National Scenic Area. A half-mile east, and the inferno would've burned a few feet beneath a block of modular homes. Another mile-and-a-half, and leaking tank cars would've landed on the bank of the Columbia River during peak spring chinook salmon migration. Seven miles west, and flames would've licked the back of the Full Sail Brewing Co. in Hood River. Further yet, and Multnomah Falls tourists could've watched the smoke plume from atop the Benson Footbridge. …


With the fire out and the recovery and damage assessment beginning Saturday, one thing was obvious. The Pacific Northwest got lucky. The region's first fiery wreck since oil traffic skyrocketed in 2012 didn't kill anyone. Only a small amount of oil was spotted in the Columbia River. No homes or businesses burned down. “All of the things that could've happened didn't happen,” said Michael Eyer, a retired state rail safety inspector. “Move this incident 60 miles west in Portland – same railroad, same product, same rail car – and you have a whole different situation.”


One of the most important messages that I have consistently tried to make in this weekly commentary is that We the People have been hoodwinked if we think the regulatory system of law is here to keep us safe. In fact, it was designed way back in the 1880’s to funnel citizen activism into dead-end political processes run by political appointees who were entirely unaccountable to We the People. So it’s no surprise that our politicians are already putting out statements that fit neatly within this framework - demanding tougher rail safety regulations rather than saying what we all know to be true – that oil and coal trains passing through our gorge is unacceptable, the risk is simply too great, and we must ban them now.


For example, Governor Kate Brown has already told us that she’s limited in what she can do, that she doesn’t have the legal authority to ban these trains. And she’s right. Which is exactly the point I’m trying to make here – it’s currently illegal to ban oil and coal trains from passing through the gorge. Why? Because such a ban would violate the Union Pacific Corporation’s so-called “rights” under the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. And because rail traffic is regulated by the feds, our state government is preempted from having any meaningful say in what happens next. Here’s what the governor’s spokesperson, Kristen Grainger, said a few days ago. The governor “will continue fighting for the strongest possible safety measures from federal policymakers and regulators to bolster rail safety here in Oregon and across the country.” In other words, another oil train derailment is inevitable. I wish there was something more we could do! Sorry about that!


On the other hand, Mosier’s fire chief, Jim Appleton, is beginning to see the light! He told Oregon Public Broadcasting that while he previously defended the safety of shipping oil by rail, he now thinks the shipments are “insane”. And he hopes that “this becomes [the] death knell for this mode of shipping” of oil.


Now just imagine if Mosier’s fire chief went from merely hoping to actually initiating a long overdue dialogue of local residents and their city council members that focuses on one central question – “Has the time arrived for Mosier to take back its authority to govern itself, and to pass a local law that bans oil and coal trains from passing through Mosier?” If they took that brave step, they would be joining 200 other communities in nine states that have already stepped outside of these ridiculous structures of law, such as corporate constitutional “rights” and federal and state preemption, and passed groundbreaking locally enforceable Community Rights ordinances.


When a community finally gets it that our government is not protecting its citizens, and that it’s not just a few bad apples that are the problem – that in fact the existing system of law itself is the problem - the sky is the limit to what a community could accomplish in its local law-making. Just take Columbia County, for example, 100 miles downstream from Mosier, where signatures are currently being gathered to put on the ballot a Community Rights ordinance to ban oil and coal trains, and fossil fuel export terminals, anywhere in Columbia County. Imagine what could happen if the people of these two counties got acquainted, and mobilized together to stop this insanity.


And what can you do to contribute to this conversation? Start telling anyone who will listen that it’s time for Mosier and other communities along the tracks to stand up and say “Enough is Enough! We don’t want stronger regulations. We want a total ban and we want it now.”


You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.


You can subscribe to my weekly podcast via I-Tunes or at You can sign up for my ‘Community Rights Updates’ at You can follow me on twitter at CienfuegosPaul. THANKS FOR LISTENING! And remember: WE are the people we’ve been WAITING for.

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