When Arlene Burns became mayor of Mosier in 2014, she never could’ve imagined that in her time as mayor, she would be dealing with the biggest disaster in the town’s history. Not only that, but she would end up in San Francisco, testifying to crowds at the Global Climate Summit.
Burns had only been the mayor of Mosier for a year and a half when the city was fundamentally changed forever. It was 2016, when a unit train carrying thousands of gallons of crude oil derailed near Mosier. Four of the train cars caught fire and 45,000 gallons of oil escaped the train. However, there was an even greater threat than the cars that were leaking oil: The cars that weren’t.
“The ones that were very close to the fire that were not leaking, they could have exploded in what’s called a bleve explosion, which is just so hot and pressured,” Burns said. “The entire city would’ve been in the blast zone if one of these explosions had happened, as well as all four lanes of the freeway.”
Though the fires were oil fires, meaning they couldn’t be put out with water, the danger of a bleve explosion meant the city’s water reservoirs were used up in order to keep the tanks that posed a risk cool. Ultimately, this meant Mosier was without water for several days.
To compound this, when the crash had originally happened, a large amount of the oil went into the water treatment plant.
“There are a couple of wild little miracles that happened with [the crash],” Burns said. “One was that the very first car that derailed augered into the earth, and it knocked off this lid for a conduit that went straight into our wastewater treatment plants. So 25,000 gallons of Bakken Crude Oil went down that hole and straight into our wastewater treatment plant, which caught it like a swimming pool.”
In some ways, this was a blessing for the town, as it saved the ground, the groundwater, and the river from the full impact of the spill. However, this meant the treatment plant would be unusable until the oil could be contained and removed, which meant Mosier would also be without sewer services.
“For the first four days [following the accident], there was no water and sewer for all the residents in the town,” Burns said. “And then we were able to ship our sewage to Hood River. The plants took several months to get back online.”
The incident brought national attention to the small town of Mosier, Burns said. In particular, it brought attention to the fact that, at the very spot where the crash happened, there had been a plan to add double tracks. This was supposed to serve the vision of the Tesoro Savage Terminal in Vancouver, Wash., which had already been approved by the port. It was set to be the largest crude oil terminal in U.S. history.
“I always joke that we kind of took the hit for the team,” Burns said. “Our story ended up being a major influence in reversing the decisions and stopping this Tesoro Savage Terminal. By getting that stopped, it took a lot of the pressure off of more and more and more of these trains coming.”
This accident was a catalyst for Burns. Because of what happened to Mosier, she was invited to testify and speak about what had happened, to share the dangers of these crude oil unit trains.
Burns said she vowed to go to the things she was invited to, to spread the message of Mosier. She spoke to the Portland Commissioners and the Port Commissioners in Vancouver. She also testified in Salem multiple times.
Burns also became involved with a group called Climate Mayors, which she met with in Chicago and San Francisco at the Global Climate Summit. It was a group that began following then-President Donald Trump’s decision to back out of the Paris Agreement.
“One thing that people realized after our government wasn’t stepping up was that there was a tremendous amount of power at a city level,” she said. “The mayors actually had a lot of power to be able to influence those kinds of decisions.”
At the group, mayors were able to share resources and ideas with each other, to help fight climate change in their own cities, many of which were huge, major cities.
“My peers were the mayor of San Francisco, the mayor of Los Angeles, the mayor of New York, and I’m the mayor of little, tiny Mosier. But here we are,” she said. “I think Mosier really stepped up and went ‘Okay, how can we be part of the solution?’ And because of the train crash, it kind of put it in our faces a lot more to take that stand.” Burns’ focus on environmentalism didn’t end when the conferences and speeches did. She would come home to Mosier and get back to work.
“Our motto for the town is ‘small enough to make a difference,’” she said. “One of the things I thought when I was in Chicago for the North American Climate Summit was, ‘If Chicago can commit to this” — I mean, how complicated must it be for Los Angeles or Chicago? — “we’ve got to be able to do this a lot easier than they can.’ Even though we don’t have many resources or staff, we don’t have many people either. The problems aren’t as vast.”
Mosier has taken steps to be environmentally friendly and to do its part in combating the climate crisis. They’ve passed an ordinance banning single-use plastics, styrofoam and straws, vowed to change all streetlights to LED bulbs once they go out, and have worked on converting their wastewater treatment plant.
“We were able to get money to transform our wastewater treatment plant into a wetland tertiary treatment, which requires a whole lot less energy, and then there’s no direct outfall into the Columbia River, which not only helps temperature-wise … but it’s good for the soil,” she said.
Following the recent end of her term as mayor, Burns is taking a step back. After 10 years on Mosier City Council — two as council president and eight as mayor — she’s ready to move on to other things, which she can do with confidence, as she said she has complete faith in the council and new mayor Witt Anderson to continue everything they’ve been working on the last 10 years without her.
“I don’t want to be a backseat driver whatsoever,” she said. “I feel like I have passed the baton. And yet, that said, if Witt calls me about anything, of course I’m 1000% there.”