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Resisting Railroad Supremacy In Oregon
A growing movement to make railroads safer and more accountable is standing up to Union Pacifics (UP) lies, intimidation, and secrecy in Eugene, Oregon.
Union Pacific Railroad, which took over the Eugene railroad line when it bought Southern Pacific in 1996, is the nations largest chemical transporter and the largest railroad, according to UPs Summary of Activities that year. The railroad is the main subsidiary of Union Pacific Corporation, of which Dick Cheney is a director.
The railroad has a poor record with chemicals and safety. In 1999, over 200 parties in Oregon sued Union Pacific for pollution of private property. The year before, the U.S. military stopped shipping with UP because the railroad handled military cargo carelessly, once abandoning a train loaded with tanks for a full day. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) released a report in 1997 on what the FRA called a fundamental breakdown in [Union Pacifics] ability to operate safely. The same year, Sanford Lewis, director of the Good Neighbor Project for Sustainable Industries, published Hazardous Materials on the Rails, a 53-page overview of the dangers of Union Pacifics broken tracks, poorly labeled, often leaking chemical cars, exhausted and uninformed workers, ungated crossings, and other threats to public safety. In 2000, eight railroad workers unions met in Pocatello, Idaho to resist UPs intimidation tactics. Spokespersons for the new coalition said the railroad intimidates workers to discourage reporting of accidents.
Eugenes Whiteaker neighborhood borders the railroad yard on the east. The citys founder built his cabin in the center of Whiteaker before the railroad came to town. The neighborhood, which is named after Oregons first governor, has a patchwork of residential, commercial, industrial and historic zoning, a canopy of century-old maples, a stretch of park along the Willamette River, and the lowest average income in Eugene. A third of Whiteaker residents are children.
In February 1995, children and adults who seemed healthy a moment earlier collapsed with what seemed like a bad flu. Over the next few days, many more became ill. Some recovered. Others sought cures for years with no success. New neighbors often collapsed in pain and nausea soon after coming to Whiteaker, and then stayed sick for years. Women were more likely to become ill than men, and less likely to get better. Children were affected still more, and infants were sickest of all.
The sickness affected animals, as well. Cats developed tender, red bald patches and lost weight as a result of diarrhea and vomiting. The starlings and frogs disappeared. Crows staggered into the streets and lay down.
One by one, Whiteaker residents began to suspect their illness was environmental. Batteries of blood tests failed to turn up any viral, bacterial, or fungal cause. Exhaustive searches through family histories provided no explanation for numbers of the affected, and doctors tested patients for countless allergies before concluding the answer lay elsewhere. Age and lifestyle factors shed no light on an illness that brought down nutritional science students, nurses, and newborns.
In 1999, a few Whiteaker residents, including the president and vice-president of the Whiteaker Community Council (WCC), started meeting as Concerned Blair Area Neighbors (CBAN) to look for the reason so many were chronically ill. The name came from the noticeable correlation between the severity of symptoms and nearness to the north end of Blair Boulevard, where the street dead-ends against the railroad yard, where the water from the drainage ditch used to flow like a river in the street for months each year.
The neighborhood health survey I had just completed had uncovered a rate of over 20 health problems in Whiteaker that exceeded a broad-based control groups incidence by about 25 percent. The figures included only problems that appeared in 1995 or later, and only while the respondents were living in Whiteaker.
Residents voiced their suspicions during the survey: many thought the industrial activity in the area was to blame, and some mentioned that they had started to feel better after moving just a few blocks farther from the railroad tracks. A few said they had only been ill when they crossed the tracks several times a day.
I called the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), where hydrogeologist Bill Mason referred us to Technical Outreach Services to Communities (TOSC), a program of the Western Region Hazardous Substances Research Center, based in Stanford and Oregon State Universities. Working with CBAN, TOSC representative Michael Fernandez and others came to Eugene, walked through Whiteaker, interviewed long-term residents and conducted a follow-up survey using a form TOSC had used earlier that year to pinpoint a similar syndrome in Arizona. The second survey found that the Whiteaker sickness was probably environmental, but that the variety of possible sources of contamination made it hard to pin one down.
By then, most of Whiteaker was calling the CBAN-TOSC effort the railroad project. The connection wasnt irrefutable by scientific standards, but it was nothing to sneeze at; the frogs that had vanished when the human sickness struck had been living in the railroad drainage ditches. The closer people lived to the railroad yard, the more likely they were to be sick. The illness began shortly after the railroad bed was regraveled, when negotiations started for the UP-SP merger. Trains were having more accidents and spilling more chemicals every year in the mid 1990s.
A crew laying fiber-optic cable along the tracks in 1999 contracted an environmental scientist to test the soil to be sure it was safe to dig. The scientist told them to stand close enough together to catch any worker who passed out while the ground was disturbed, the crew leader said. He said the digging took five times longer than expected because railroad security agents harassed them continually, demanding to know what the crew was looking at and why they were moving so fast, why so slow.
The neighborhood association of Bethel Triangle, which borders the railroad yard on the west, has been following the issue of solvent contamination from the yard since the early 1990s. In 1993, the DEQ began investigating the possibility that unacceptable amounts of chlorinated hydrocarbons Southern Pacific had used to clean tracks and paint cars had made their way into the ground water. Bethel Triangle residents discussed their suspicions. Some had seen litters of deformed kittens born near the yard. Others had been ill since moving into the area. A number noticed chemical smells in their garden wells.
The DEQ worked out a voluntary compliance agreement with the railroad. The railroad agreed to hire an outside consultant to test the yards soil and ground water, to clean up any excessively toxic areas which the public was likely to come in contact with to an acceptable standard, to inform nearby neighborhoods about each stage of the decade-long process, and to encourage public involvement.
Long-time yard neighbor Reva Moen said she had seen and heard of environmental practices in the east yard that frightened her, but that to talk publicly about the railroad was risky. People are afraid, Moen said. With the railroad, anything can happen. Reluctant or unable to communicate their worries, area residents concerned about railroad issues were isolated from one another.
Then, in March 2000, Union Pacific sprayed Diuron, Oust, and 2,4-D along the tracks through Eugene. In Whiteaker, the spray was so thick it looked like a heavy snow storm. Twelve people reported to the Oregon State Health Division and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) that they felt dizzy and had trouble breathing after crossing the tracks.
State Representative Kitty Piercy, who lives in Whiteaker, invited Mason of the DEQ, Fernandez, WCC leaders, CBAN members, local anti-pesticide activists and Union Pacifics vegetation control manager, Tony Galinis, to a nonconfrontational fact-finding meeting. Galinis cancelled hours before the meeting.
Summer opened with a public meeting between the railroad, the DEQ, and the railroads scientific consultants, Environmental Resources Management (ERM). Only one major news outlet had anyone in the office that knew about the meeting an hour before it started: KUGN AM Radio, whose staff had heard of it hours before it would begin, and thought it had happened the day before.
Local community activist Carol Berg, who had heard the radio announcement, called me and asked whether I would attend. Berg wasnt certain she had heard the day correctly, so she left it out. WCC President Erik Knoder and I separately called City Neighorhood Liaison Michelle Buwalda to ask the day of the event and learned we had minutes to get there.
I called the Public Works Building to verify that the meeting would be held there. Questions about a meeting with the DEQ and the railroad about the contamination, and a meeting about the chemicals in the railroad yard yielded no recognition in the Public Works office. The staff agreed that a public meeting was scheduled in the building, however.
Cards taped to the meeting rooms walls indicated information tables for the DEQ, Union Pacific, ERM, and the City Neighborhood Program. DEQ railroad yard project manager Greg Aitken explained that DEQ representatives would stand near the DEQ tables wearing green nametags around their necks. ERM, in pink tags, would staff the ERM area, while the railroads environmental remediation manager, regional spokesman, and lawyer were expected to arrive soon to put on blue nametags and provide their information.
I approached Union Pacific spokesperson Mike Furtney three times to ask what UP planned to do with the railroad yard. According to Aitken and Waldorf, Union Pacific said it had no plans to sell the yard, but four railroad workers I had spoken with said the sale had already begun.
One possible solution to contamination of industrial sites in neighborhoods, according to the DEQ, is natural remediation; waiting for nature to neutralize the toxic compounds at the normal rate. In the case of some of the chemicals known to be present in the Eugene railroad yard, this would mean thousands of years. Many, including the dioxins formed in the breakdown of 2,4-D, can last centuries until living human and animal tissues react with them, mutating in the process. Elements, such as arsenic, do not break down.
A number of residents asked whether Union Pacific could manipulate the testing process to allow them to sell the yard and shed their responsibility while contamination of the property threatened human health.
The consultants replied that the concentration of toxic substances in the areas they had tested was considered acceptable. ERMs chemist said only four hazardous metals were likely to be found in a railroad yard, and the consultants had gone beyond that standard screen to test for nine: lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, mercury, barium, selenium, antimony and silver, none of which was found to be excessive. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, publishes a panel of 13 toxic metals commonly found in railroad yards, including beryllium and thallium, which have been popular as rodenticides.
The chemist said the past uses of the Eugene yard would not suggest any additional metals were present. But the railroad yard has operated since 1870, when chemical practices were unregulated and rarely recorded. Past use also leaves out accidents, leaks, and pesticides.
Many inert pesticide ingredients, which include banned active ingredients and other dangerous substances, are treated as trade secrets. A Freedom of Information Act request can yield their identities, but this must be done for each product.
ERMs report to the DEQ on the results of their tests contained a folded map of Whiteakers end of the railroad yard. The map misidentified streets bordering the yard and indicated a soil sampling where an overpass actually stands. The report said the area showed no signs of distressed vegetation, soil staining or ways the levels of the measured pollutants, which were most concentrated one to two feet underground, could come into contact with the public.
I sent Aitken at the DEQ a reply to the report, correcting the maps errors and describing the dark, oily patches in the yard and the wilted grass. My letter also asked about train spills, runoff to the ditches that drained down the streets, pesticides, rotting ties treated with creosote, arsenic, PCBs and pentachlorophenol, the bus stops along the edge of the elevated railroad yard, and the elementary school less than two blocks away.
Union Pacifics response dismissed all those who set foot on UP property as trespassers who would be dealt with by the railroads Special Agents whether they were fugitives, children, or bus passengers who stepped off the concrete at the inset bus stops. The letter avoided the issue of runoff. ERM denied knowing of any drainage ditches, oily patches or standing water, and denied that any spills had occurred in the railroad yard.
In the UP/ERM letter, Tony Galinis said pesticides were not a concern because DIURON and 2,4-D are common.... The 2,4-D, a contact herbicide, is applied as a spot spray to areas with existing weeds, not as a blanket application.... This information was verified by Gary Barron from the Oregon Department of Agriculture [who] concluded that UPRR were working within the State and Federal guidelines for herbicide application. Trained, licensed, experienced personnel perform the application work itself.
A month later, I met with Representative Piercy, her assistant Dawn Helwig, Michael Waldorf and other railroad area residents to form a multi-neighborhood coalition. We called ourselves Community Against Railroad Pollution (CARP).
By then, several hundred residents had signed a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration and the ODA asking them to toughen regulation and enforcement of railroad chemical practices and to ban chemical herbicides on railroad property. City councilors had sent statements of support for our goals. The FRA had responded; investigator Harvey Armes was coming to Eugene from Vancouver, Washington to meet with us.
The day after CARPs first meeting, the ODA reached its actual conclusions on the March pesticide application. The railroads spray contractor, De Angelo Bros. of Missouri, was fined $2,910 for hiring unlicensed applicators in three towns in Oregon in 2000. One of the investigations that led to the fine began when two Union Pacific workers in northern Oregon reported symptoms like those of the Whiteaker residents following an application.
September 27, Mike Furtney told a reporter for the Eugene Register-Guard that he knew of no requests for prior notification of pesticide spraying. Days later, City Neighborhood Program Manager Richie Weinman received a letter from Furtney acknowledging Weinmans August letter asking for the good neighbor agreement.
Armes, a former roadmaster with Burlington Northern Railroad, said the FRA had jurisdiction over only a few of our complaints: track repair and leaking cars. He laughingly told a story of a man who had reported leaking tank cars, and then learned the cars carried only water. The tracks in Eugene, Armes said, were in adequate condition, as they were not used to carry more than a few carloads of hazardous materials at a time, which reduces the danger of a multicar spill. We had logged an average of 60 cars per day, most on Union Pacific trains, bearing number-coded Department of Transportation hazmat placards, indicating that they contained poisonous and corrosive chemicals.
The investigator advised us to send our photographs of leaking hazmat-placarded cars to the FRAs hazardous materials specialist.
Armess own area, he said, was the condition of tracks. I offered to show him pictures I had brought of rails that were warped, unsupported for several feet and unconnected where the pieces join. He declined, saying, I know this is hard to understand, but its an excepted track.
I said I had seen major spills in 1999 and 2000 that were not reported to the DEQ and asked Armes to find out whether they had been reported to the FRA. He said to his knowledge the FRA received reports of all hazardous materials incidents and that there had been none in Eugene in years.
We inquired about the FRAs own figure from a 1997 inspection of Union Pacifics chemical cars that found that one in 10 was unlabeled or mislabeled and three- eighths were defective. Armes said new standards drawn up in 1999 had remedied the tank car problem. On the issue of inappropriately mixed cargo in trailer carsHazardous Materials on the Rails reports a single trailer car carrying breakfast cereal, body parts going to an incinerator, and poisonArmes said he knew about the practice but believed it had also been corrected with the new standards.
He suggested bringing our concerns about pesticides and ground contamination to the EPA, which Piercy and Helwig have done, and continuing to work with the DEQ and ODA.
City Councilor David Kelly, who had written in support of our letter, received a reply from ODA Assistant Administrator Dale Mitchell on October 18. Mitchell said the Department of Agriculture had addressed violations...and provided recommendations to Union Pacific and De Angelo Brothers to prevent future violations and concerns from local individuals. He did not mention our goal of banning herbicides on the railroad tracks.
Railroad-area neighbors are standing up and saying our lives are more important than the railroads profit margins. We dont accept railroad supremacy. Z
Serena Rainey is a freelance journalist living in Whiteaker. She is secretary of the Whiteaker Community Council, organizer of Concerned Blair Area Neighbors and one of the organizers of Community Against Railroad Pollution.