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Railroad yard cleanup derailed

Union Pacific derailed its 2017 railroad yard cleanup plan months after the years-in-the-making project was approved, citing a new federal study which revises toxicity parameters for one of the main contaminants at the site.

Union Pacific has requested a reevaluation that an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) specialist said might result in either a much smaller cleanup project or no project at all.

DEQ confirmed this week that Union Pacific asked for a reevaluation and a conditional “No Further Action” 10 months after the agency approved its latest cleanup in 2017.

“I can’t say if there will be a cleanup project there,” DEQ Project Manager Greg Aitken said. “The best assumption is there will be some amount of cleanup, but it will be less than what they had proposed.”

The Ashland railroad yard, just across the tracks from the city’s historic Railroad District, “could be a significant addition to the city and downtown area,” the city attorney said. Union Pacific can’t sell or develop the property until it satisfies the DEQ’s cleanup requirements.

The once-vibrant locomotive maintenance facility, surrounded by a passenger station, a hotel, roundhouse, and a 3-million-gallon aboveground bunker oil tank, operated almost 100 years between 1887 to 1986. Now, the 20-acre site sits vacant and fenced in because of embedded toxic contaminants, including lead, arsenic, petroleum hydrocarbon and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.

Union Pacific acquired the property in 1990s and has attempted multiple times over almost two decades to clean up the site.

At the end of March 2018, the site is still untouched and contaminated.

“We were anticipating the plan to move forward — It looked like a go,” Aitken said, “But we weren’t prepared to walk away at this point either.”

‘Long past due’

DEQ issued a “Record of Decision” in 2001 that determined the site is contaminated with a number of chemicals and metals from years of locomotive service at the site.

The project was deemed “low risk,” which allows Union Pacific to operate under a voluntary cleanup program.

The company has since produced two cleanup plans — in 2006 and 2013.

The 2006 plan was shut down by DEQ out of concerns raised by Ashland residents regarding the use of trucks to haul contaminated soil on city streets. The plan proposed to excavate roughly 35,500 cubic yards of soil from the site.

Union Pacific revised its plan in 2013, which called for excavating about 18,700 cubic yards of soil based on updated cleanup standards and using railcars to haul contaminated soil. The plan was delayed on Ashland’s approval relaxing its deed restriction on the property.

The City Council in 2016 voted to change the city’s deed to be applicable with DEQ’s, which requires additional cleanup efforts if the property is to be divided and developed into residential or commercial buildings.

The vote essentially leaves the city with little to no legal authority on the cleanup project, but it helped the cleanup plan move forward.

In an email sent to DEQ in December 2016, an Ashland resident endorsed the project, writing, “I appreciate your advising us of the RR Yard cleanup, it’s long past due.”

ODEQ held a public forum early 2017. It approved the plan Feb. 23, 2017.

‘Less toxic’

Union Pacific, in a letter sent to DEQ in December 2017, cited a new study published by Environmental Protection Agency that benzo(a)pyrene — the driving risk at the 20-acre site — “is less toxic than previously thought.”

The letter concluded with a request for an approval of “no cleanup needed.”

“DEQ confirmed the fact,” Aitken said. “As the matter of policy, we adopt studies that are published by the EPA as our guidelines and standards.”

Aitken said the federal agency has studied the toxicity in benzo(a)pyrene and indicated changes for years — but the timing of the study is “unfortunate” for the project.

DEQ insisted the project managers collect new data to assess other contaminants at the site — which could potentially be handled through a different remedial option, Aitken said.

“There are several contaminants at the site, and they still need to be addressed,” he said. “They paint a different picture (from the previous plan).”

According to the project’s engineer manager, Mark Ochsner, Union Pacific is working to determine a new work plan that includes where to collect new samplings and how to analysis new data.

“It’s still in the preliminary stage of planning,” Ochsner said. “But it will lay out our approach to the new fieldwork this summer.”

He added the scale of a potential new cleanup project will be contingent heavily on what is collected in the summer.

A new work plan will be complete between April and May for DEQ’s approval, he said. Fieldwork will start in summer.

“The goal is to complete the investigation for a feasibility plan in 2018,” he said, adding the earliest any potential work could happen is late 2019.

‘Nothing we can do’

Because Union Pacific is working under a voluntary cleanup program, DEQ can’t enforce a timeline or a scope of work on the project, Aitken said.

The city of Ashland also doesn’t have any clout on the project, either, City Attorney Dave Lohman said.

“We don’t have any legal leverage in this project, except for zoning,” Lohman said. “Besides that, there’s nothing we can do.”

Aitken said Union Pacific could choose to drop the cleanup project, “but they wouldn’t get too far with that.” The property will remain vacant until DEQ confirms it is in compliance with the department’s cleanup standards.

“How long this thing will drag on, I can’t say,” he said. “But we have been comfortable with them — they have done the work we asked.”

Union Pacific has stated its goal is to divide and sell the property for different developments, according to past meeting minutes.

The Tidings reached a spokesman of Union Pacific, who requested questions to be sent via email. No response was received in time for this article.

The work plan and further decision on the project will be updated on DEQ’s website, Aitken said. DEQ will also host a public input session once a plan is decided, he added.

“(DEQ) and Union Pacific are the two players in the driver seats now,” Lohman said. “We’re hopeful … that DEQ will allow the project to move forward.”

—Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.