When a Kenan Advantage Group semitrailer carrying 11,000 gallons of gasoline crashed into eight parked Portland & Western railroad tankers and exploded before 8:49 a.m. Dec. 13, the resulting fire sent a mammoth column of black smoke into the sky above Northwest Portland.
Some locals figured their worst fears had been realized.
“My wife totally freaked out,” said Bryson Slothower, a teacher with young children. “She was like, ‘Evacuate!’ It made her panic.”
By all accounts, emergency responders performed well, and the three-alarm fire was quickly contained. Portland Fire & Rescue arrived on scene, south of the St. Johns Bridge in Linnton, by 8:54 a.m., mobilizing via land, air and river, using foam to put out what spokesman Lt. Rich Tyler said was the city’s largest fire in 2015.
The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management sent a “shelter in place” order to 246 locals as police established a perimeter and closed the highway, stopping Holiday Half-Marathon runners a mile short of their destination. The liquid asphalt-filled rail tankers sustained heavy heat damage, but their hulls were not breached.
The fire was contained by 10:34 a.m. The “all clear” went out at 11:20 a.m. Local and national media carried what the Associated Press labeled a “big story” for 24 hours, then moved on.
A closer look at the incident that took one life (truck driver Andrew Lambert) suggests it could have been much worse.
“We dodged a bullet. We were very lucky about the circumstances on Dec. 13,” PBEM Director Carmen Merlo said. “Had that been Bakken crude [in the railroad cars], it would have been a different story.”
In such a situation, Leo Krick, Portland Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief of Special Operations, said there’s a “very high likelihood” the tankers would have exploded from the truck fire.
What’s not speculation: The crash and fire interrupted electrical service to the control room of a NW Natural liquefied natural gas tank 100 yards away, triggering an emergency shutdown.
“The vehicle fire disrupted the primary power to the facility, which resulted in the activation of the ESD [Emergency Shut Down] at approximately 8:54 a.m.,” reads a report the utility provided to federal regulators. “[NW Natural] first responder arrived on site at 10:12 a.m. and activated backup power. Minor damage was experienced at the control room building due to the fire.”
NW Natural spokesperson Melissa Moore wrote in an email that the utility’s safety precautions worked as intended.
“We checked on this, and there was no impact to our LNG facility,” Moore wrote. “The tank, which sits far back from the road and tracks, was not impacted. The only facility that was slightly impacted was our control room building.”
What could have happened in the hour and 18 minutes the control room was without power? Would safety mechanisms have operated normally?
Moore’s terse, emailed responses left “no impact” as her last word.
The rail line in question often carries Bakken crude oil, which has a volatility similar to gasoline, as well as other hazardous or explosive substances. Rob Davis of The Oregonian has reported that transport of Bakken oil in Oregon has expanded greatly in recent years, growing 250 percent in 2013 alone, to 19,000 oil cars.
“In this particular situation, we were really, really lucky that it was only liquid asphalt,” Linnton resident Darise Weller told Merlo at a Jan. 6 neighborhood association meeting. “Last week it was ethanol that was stored there.”
Had there been a different substance in those rail cars, could a “cascading” series of fires or explosions have occurred? The LNG tank is connected to a pipeline, and there are other hazardous or explosive facilities nearby.
“It has the potential to have a domino effect,” Krick said. “It’s hard to speculate. It’s a very high likelihood.”
A spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Gus Melonas, says “maybe two” Bakken crude laden trains interchange with Portland & Western each week, each pulling 100 cars, each with about three times the semitrailer’s volume. The CPC-1232 cars—safer than the old model, but not as safe as newly adopted federal standards—are a familiar sight to Linntonites.
Representatives from Lambert’s trucking company, Kenan Advantage Group, Portland & Western and its parent company Genesee & Wyoming didn’t return calls.
Had the LNG tank been affected, evacuation and “risk” zones for LNG tanks range from half a mile to three miles.
“If that thing had erupted, good night,” said Eric De Place, policy director at the Sightline Institute, a sustainability advocacy nonprofit in Seattle. “That part of Portland would be a smoking crater today.”
A Jan. 18 visit to the site found few remnants beside the burned St. Johns Bridge sign over Highway 30 and a smaller, barely readable “Under Video Surveillance” NW Natural sign along the tracks. The smell of creosote from new railroad ties, a few small pieces of truck shrapnel and new rock along the scorched highway hillside were the main clues of what happened. There was also a new power pole.
The state fire marshal incident report, provided by Lt. Tyler, estimated the total loss at $2.43 million, $1.6 million of which was the eight tanker cars. It’s a small loss for energy companies whose annual statements are measured in hundreds of millions or more. But the cost of incidents involving Bakken oil have been on a different level, as in the $460 million settlement after the disaster in the small Quebec, Canada, town of Lac-Mégantic that bankrupted a railroad company.
Melonas says BNSF, whose response personnel assisted Dec. 13, has spent $70 million in three years on track improvements in Oregon, and is planning the addition of a GPS-based safety technology called “Positive Train Control.”
“We don’t get into what ifs; we invest so that incidents don’t happen,” he said. “Those [rail] cars were not compromised; they withstood.”
When it comes to safety in what officials sometimes call the “critical energy infrastructure hub” in Linnton, reasonable minds may differ.
“The benefit of rail is that it’s isolated,” Melonas said.
Linnton residents, however, don’t see it that way, noting the rail line’s close proximity to the highway, tank farms and child care services at the Linnton Community Center.
Get out of Linnton
On Jan. 6, Merlo and Krick told Linnton’s neighborhood association their agencies see severe risks in the splinter-shaped neighborhood.
“If I had all the money in the world, I would move you people somewhere else,” said Merlo, going off script during insistent questioning.
The comment wasn’t appreciated by locals, none of whom seemed eager to move.
“Move the tanks!” came the responses. “We were here first!”
“It was a slip of her tongue, [Merlo] didn’t do it on purpose,” Linnton activist Pat Wagner said. “But it just shows the true attitude of the city.”
“They definitely want to get rid of Linnton, and they definitely need to get rid of Linnton to keep doing the things that they’re doing,” local resident Sarah Taylor said of city officials.
“I don’t want to move,” said Slothower’s daughter Addi, 7, frowning at a reporter who repeated Merlo’s words. “We’re not moving!”
Other reactions ranged from astonishment to discussions of eminent domain to simple affirmations of “We really like it here,” as graduate student Erik Conser put it.
“How would they manage to scrape the money together, to buy us all out?” Conser asked. “[Moving] is a big ask either way.”
In a follow-up interview, Merlo admitted her phrasing wasn’t “elegant,” but insisted the city ought to consider a program to buy homes in Linnton.
“Much the same as [the city has] purchased homes from sellers in flood plains, such as in the Johnson Creek area, where we’ve bought those homes from the owners and restored those homes to natural floodplains area. Much the same way, we might consider buying homes for something similar in Linnton.”
Bryan Hockaday, chief of staff for City Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees PBEM, would not comment on Merlo’s warning of in the inherent danger of living in Linnton.