IT WAS A HECTIC scene at a railroad crossing near the BNSF Railway terminal in Vancouver, Washington, on Saturday, June 18.

The crossing gates were closed, the lights flashed, warning bells rang loudly and often. And as a short, three-car train approached, blasting its deafening whistle, about 80 people who'd been blocking the track for more than two hours shuffled out of the way. The rest stayed put, forcing the locomotive to halt.

  • Doug Brown

As a Vancouver police loudspeaker threatened arrest for what seemed like the 100th time, the focus was on the group that wouldn't get off the tracks. There were 19 of them—later joined by two others—sitting in a circle with their arms linked together, continuously belting out protest songs and chants amid the train's whistle, the bells' ringing, and the cops' warnings. They skewed older—mostly gray-haired Woody Guthrie-esque seniors and middle-aged folks who've been around the block a few times, along with a few younger women still early in their civil disobedience careers.

"Coal, oil, gaaaaas, none of these shall paaaaass," the circle sang in unison. "Keep it in the grooouuund, turn the trains arooouuund. Coal, oil, gaaaaas, none of these shall paaaaass..."

They were there because of what had happened 15 days earlier: the massive derailment of an oil train passing through the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier, about 69 miles east of Portland. After 16 of the train's 96 cars derailed around noon on June 3—apparently due to undetectable broken bolts on the track—four of them caught fire, leaking 42,000 gallons of crude oil on its way to Tacoma. A majority of Mosier's 430 residents had to be evacuated.

"Our community would like to see the Mosier derailment and the process of putting our community back together as both the straw that broke the camel's back and a model for our transition to renewable, global energy," Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton had told the protesters Saturday morning in downtown Vancouver, shortly before they headed to the tracks. "Mosier proved that those trains are too dangerous. Let's make our policies reflect that."

Saturday's protest was led by the newly formed Fossil Fuel Resistance Network, along with the groups Portland Rising Tide and 350PDX. Against oil extraction in general because of global warming, they're demanding an immediate end to moving oil by rail.

"Bomb Trains Fuel Climate Chaos," read one huge banner at the protest. "Ban the Bomb Trains," said another.

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The activists have been making that case for a long time, but in the wake of the Mosier derailment, they've got some powerful new company.

The position has been echoed—at least in part—by Governor Kate Brown, who's asked for a temporary halt to oil train travel through the gorge. And Brown's Oregon Department of Transportation has gone further, suggesting that oil trains should be stopped on all sections of Oregon track that carry risks similar to the rails near Mosier.

Meanwhile, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury last week called on Brown to urge Washington Governor Jay Inslee to reject a $210 million Vancouver Energy terminal being proposed at the Port of Vancouver by Tesoro Refining & Marketing Company, LLC, and Savage Companies.

That project would be the single largest oil-by-rail terminal in the country, the Columbian reports, capable of handling four daily oil trains carrying an average of 360,000 barrels of oil.

"Tesoro has a planned facility across the river in Vancouver and the oil that will go there will come through the gorge on trains," Hales said at a press conference on June 14. "At a time where we're beginning to debate on how to clean up the toxins in our river, at a time of acute concern about toxins in our water and in our air, we do not need to add to that list how we clean up the aftermath and destruction of oil-by-rail projects gone wrong."

Washington officials are in the final stages of reviewing the terminal, with public hearings beginning on June 27 in Vancouver, the Seattle Times wrote, "after which the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will recommend whether Governor Jay Inslee should approve it."

"State officials rarely have opportunities to limit the increase of oil trains in their territory until safety improvements are fully in effect and proven," a recent Seattle Times editorial said. "That chance comes when governors decide whether to approve or deny major facilities like Vancouver Energy.

"The choice is clear, as Mosier showed us all."

Back at Saturday's protest, the cops finally swarmed in around noon, as they'd threatened they would. Police plucked each of the 21 activists slowly and deliberately, recording them on video, reading them their rights, restraining them with zip-tie handcuffs, and leading them—past a squad of sheriff's deputies in full militarized riot gear ready to pounce if need be—to the back of the large white police van.

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  • Doug Brown

They'd be booked on a charge of second-degree misdemeanor criminal trespass, and released later that evening.

The crowd on the other side of the tracks cheered on each of their comrades as they were led off—the gray bearded man wearing a ratty Dennis Kucinich T-shirt under his parka, the stoic retired school teacher, the smiling early-twentysomething woman who drove up from Eugene with her dad, and, at the end, the 85-year-old woman in a red "The People vs. Shell" T-shirt, who earlier in the day led the group in a rousing chant.

"Corporate crime scene," she intoned again and again, punctuating the line with a shrill alarm from a bullhorn. "Corporate crime scene."

  • Doug Brown