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DEQ has little clout in rail yard cleanup

The state Department of Environmental Quality has responded to a series of questions from the city of Ashland regarding the cleanup of more than 20 acres of Union Pacific Railroad property, and the results are not encouraging for those hoping to see a full cleanup of the site.

In a five-page response to a set of questions posed by the city, DEQ says it has little control over much of the cleanup process provided Union Pacific adheres to conditions outlined in a record of decision from 2001.

DEQ describes the site as “low risk and not a threat to people or the environment.” As a result, Union Pacific is in voluntary cleanup status with DEQ, and should the company submit a cleanup plan that meets prescribed DEQ guidelines, there is little the city or DEQ can do to compel the railroad to do more.

One of the primary objections voiced thus far to Union Pacific plans regarding the cleanup has been the company’s proposal to conduct only a partial cleanup of the site. When asked in the questionnaire whether DEQ could require Union Pacific to conduct a full-site cleanup, the agency acknowledged its hands were tied.

“Under the voluntary cleanup agreement between DEQ and UPRR, DEQ does not have the ability to require them to conduct a full site cleanup," the DEQ response said. "The voluntary cleanup program provides a flexible schedule where work can be completed as part of a site redevelopment project, as operable units, or based on an annual budget.”

The contaminants on the land, primarily petroleum byproducts and heavy metals, are remnants of days when the property was part of a rail yard complex. City Administrator Dave Kanner said despite public sentiment that the city should compel Union Pacific to conduct a full-site cleanup, it is unclear what action the city could take to do so.

“The city has been working with DEQ and Union Pacific on these issues for 15 years, but I think it’s fair to say we were caught a little by surprise by the proposal for a partial cleanup rather than a full-site cleanup," Kanner said. "I think one of the things that has become clear during the course of talking with DEQ is that the city doesn’t appear to have much of a hammer to compel Union Pacific to do anything in any specific way.”

In its response, DEQ stated that its primary concern was to ensure both the railroad and DEQ were adhering to the record of decision governing the cleanup. DEQ said it was similarly hamstrung with regard to the method of soil disposal used at the site.

Ashland residents have spoken out against the use of trucks to haul away contaminated soil due to the possibility of toxins becoming airborne along the route. The city has requested that Union Pacific utilize railroad transportation to dispose of the contaminated soil, but DEQ says both rail and truck disposal are viable options.

“DEQ is unable to require UPRR to use rail for removal," the response stated. "DEQ believes truck removal can be just as safe as rail removal provided the proper controls are in place.”

Despite two previous cleanup plans, one in 2006 and one in 2013, that called for rail disposal of waste, DEQ says it cannot compel Union Pacific to use rail. The agency will instead wait for a new cleanup plan to be submitted by UPRR and evaluate the plan to see if it meets the requirements laid out in the 2001 record of decision.

Another concern raised through the questionnaire was one of time frame. Again, because of its status as a voluntary cleanup, there is no established time frame for cleanup of the property, which lies between Hersey Street and A Street north of the tracks. DEQ also clarified that it would not be conducting any on-site observation of the cleanup process once it begins.

“DEQ would review UPRR methods for managing environmental risk, but there is no requirement for on-site DEQ oversight. After review and approval of the work plan, DEQ expects that UPRR’s environmental consultant (CH2MHill) will complete this project safely and properly.”

The city of Ashland was able to impose a requirement in the 2001 record of decision requiring UPRR to clean the property up to standards consistent with residential zoning. While UPRR will be required to do so as part of the cleanup process, DEQ's response raises questions as to how that will be ascertained. DEQ currently calculates contaminants based on an average of samples taken from various sites around the property. Once the average contaminant level is within DEQ parameters, the site is considered suitable for residential zoning.

However, if the property is subdivided, it is possible that some portions of the property may have higher-than-allowed levels of contaminants, and a new calculation of the contaminant level would be required.

DEQ wrote: “In the case of the Ashland Rail Yard where a specific development plan is not yet available, DEQ assumed use of the entire 20-acre rail yard as a single residential property where a person’s long-term exposure to site contaminants could be averaged across the 20-acre site. DEQ’s assumption about a person’s average exposure to contaminant levels for the rail yard will no longer be correct if the property is subdivided into multiple lots. If subdivision occurs, then a new calculation would need to be made based on sample data for the particular subdivided lots, and the new number would need to be compared with DEQ’s ‘safe’ level to decide if additional cleanup would be needed.”

Kanner said DEQ representatives will be present to field questions from City Council in its meeting Oct. 6. Representatives from Union Pacific Railroad are expected at the meeting. The full questionnaire can be viewed online at the city of Ashland’s website, www.ashland.or.us.

Alec Dickinson is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at AlecAlaska@gmail.com.

Ben Kysar, left, and Cameron Lotton, employees with Railworks Track Systems, work Thursday on the rail near Ashland Street. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch