MOSIER, Ore. (AP) — Leaders of several Pacific Northwest tribes gathered Thursday near the site of last week’s fiery oil train wreck in Oregon to condemn the shipping of fossil fuels through the Columbia River Gorge, a scenic homeland and sacred fishing ground for the Yakama Nation and others over the millennia.
“We do not want fossil fuels at all coming through the Columbia River Gorge — at all,” said Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy. “We truly see what is at hand. … We are sacrificing and putting at risk the long-term benefit and well-being of future generations, our children, our grandchildren, those yet to come.”
A 96-car train carrying volatile crude oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region to Tacoma, Washington, derailed June 3 along the Columbia River, which forms most of the boundary between Washington and Oregon. No one was hurt, but four cars caught fire, prompting the evacuation of a nearby school, forcing the closure of an interstate, and enraging local officials and residents. Some of the oil made it to the river, where it was captured by absorbent booms, officials said.
The Yakama and other tribes have opposed the movement of oil and other fossil fuels through the Columbia Gorge, a canyon carved out of the region’s volcanic rock by the river and by violent Ice Age floods. Oil trains pose grave threats to public safety, the environment and their treaty-reserved fishing rights, the tribes say.
Union Pacific Railroad spokesman Justin Jacobs said the company takes the concerns seriously, but the railroad is federally obligated to transport crude oil and other commodities for its customers.
Davis Yellowash Washines, chairman of the Yakama Nation general council, rang a bell before leading the group in what he called a “messenger song,” which the tribe used to honor a small bird whose arrival signified the return of the spring salmon run in the Columbia River each year.
“This is his song that we use,” Washines said. “It’s a messenger song and I hope that from this day the message gets stronger. This is for the land, the water, the children.”
The tribal leaders said they were especially sad to be gathering to discuss the derailment on the 161st anniversary of the U.S. government’s treaty with the Yakamas, an event that was to be marked with a weekend of celebrations including a parade and powwow. The pollution caused by oil spills threatens the fishing rights reserved in the treaty, the tribe said.
Among the two dozen tribal members who attended were leaders of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon and the Lummi Nation in Washington state.
“We are farmers of the river, farmers of the sea, farmers of the land, and we have been since time immemorial,” said Jay Julius, a member of the Lummi tribal council. “The fish always returned because we gave them great respect. Where are we at today?”
An organization representing 8,000 union firefighters in Washington on Wednesday asked Gov. Jay Inslee to urge federal regulators to halt oil trains through the state until there’s a full investigation into the cause of the Oregon derailment.
“What happened in Mosier could have just as easily happened in a population center like Spokane or Seattle, resulting in even greater tragedy,” Dennis Lawson, president of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters wrote in a letter.