Union Pacific Railroad officials are still investigating what caused a train to derail Aug. 1 along Highway 730, about 16 miles northeast of Umatilla just south of the Oregon-Washington state line.

The train was heading from Spokane to the Hinkle Locomotive Service and Repair Facility near Hermiston when 13 empty cars went off the track — five of which slid down into the Columbia River. Nothing was spilled, though the company did place silt fencing in the water as a precaution.

Spokesman Mark Davis said nearly half of the 89 total train cars were, in fact, hauling loads that included a variety of goods, from frozen vegetables to lumber. The train did not include any oil cars, though some loads did contain phosphoric acid, which the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health identifies as a chemical hazard.

Phosphoric acid can be found in products such as fertilizers, rust removers and home cleaning supplies, though food-grade phosphoric acid is also used to provide soft drinks with their tangy, sour taste.

The cars that went into the river were specifically designed to carry finished automobiles and were not loaded at the time. Regardless of whatever is on board, Davis said Union Pacific investigates all train derailments to determine a cause and make sure it doesn't happen again.

"Prevention is the key," Davis said. "We continue to drive those (incidents) down."

According to statistics provided by Union Pacific, the railroad has invested more than $1 billion into its Oregon infrastructure to improve safety. During that period, derailments decreased company-wide by 23 percent.

When a derailment does happen, Davis said four teams are called in to investigate. They check into the condition of the track, locomotives, human error and anything else that might have contributed to the wreck.

While the teams work as fast as they can comparing notes, Davis said there is no timetable to complete their investigation.

Crews have since removed all damaged cars from the track and river, and the rail line was reopened Saturday afternoon. Contractors will remain on scene for the next several weeks, Davis said, as they continue to clean up debris.

Drivers should continue to expect delays on Highway 730 through the construction zone, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.


Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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