When word spread of the June 3 derailment, Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns was 2,500 miles away. “I got a call from a friend moments after the derailment,” said Arlene. “Then I started getting calls from parents asking ‘where are my kids?’ Everyone was in a panic.”
She started taking press calls as that was one thing she could do from a distance. Ironically, being away also helped her connect with a childhood friend who is now with the National Transportation Safety Board who helped her navigate the world of the railroads and federal government. “I was frustrated not being on the ground in Mosier, but perhaps there was perfection in circumstance,” said Arlene.
Once home, Warm Springs, Yakima, Umatilla, Lummi and Nez Perce Tribal leaders came to town to offer sacred prayers to the river and the community and speak out against the oil trains. “I learned that their treaty rights predate any of the railroads in the Gorge,” said Arlene, “which include their innate connection to wild salmon and its protection. That is powerful.”
Arlene’s path to becoming Mosier’s mayor has not been a straight line. She is an adventurer, once serving as a stunt double for Meryl Streep in “The River Wild” as well as working as a river guide in Nepal. She loved the Himalayas as home, but felt compelled to return to the states and immerse in a new chapter. An expat dentist in Kathmandu spoke of his favorite spot, the White Salmon river in the Pacific Northwest. “What grabbed me as I was driving through the Gorge was of course the beauty but also the juxtaposition of rainforest and desert, of mountains and rivers,” said Arlene. She chose to live in the transition zone, cradled by volcanos, which also turned to be a rainbow zone where the rain meets the sun. That’s how Mosier became home.
Now her home is threatened and the town motto, Small Enough to Make a Difference, has become a rally cry. “The oil train’s tank cars spanned our entire city limits,” said Arlene. “This incident elevated our energy and passion to stop this madness of putting all of our communities and habitat at risk. It has made fighting oil trains a lot more present and pertinent in my everyday life.” She knows it won’t be easy and as the shock of the derailment resides, she is looking for positives within the derailment. One such positive is the positioning of the Mosier’s sewage treatment plant. It took the greatest hit from the oil spill and was severely damaged, however, that hit allowed the plant to contain a significant portion of the spilled oil and protect the river. “Parts to a treatment plant are replaceable, but the river is not replaceable.” She sees the treatment plant as a hero, taking a bullet for the river. “I want to build a statue for that plant, said Arlene. “A fecal fountain.”