Following a Wednesday evening appeal hearing that stretched over five hours, the Wasco County Board of Commissioners reversed an earlier decision by the county’s planning commission and voted unanimously to deny Union Pacific’s application to add several miles of new track through the Mosier area.
Read the full story online at www.thedalleschro....
Union Pacific has been seeking regulatory approval to expand an existing railroad siding east and west from Mosier. The “Mosier Siding Extension Project” calls for a total of 4.02 miles of second mainline track to be added at both ends of an existing 1.35-mile siding at Mosier. The extended trackage is designed to allow trains to pass and keep moving rather than, as is often the case now, being required to stop on the siding in Mosier and wait for other trains to go by.
Railroad officials have described the route through Mosier as a “bottleneck.”
At the end of the hearing, held at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, the commissioners cited the negative impact on tribal treaty rights in rejecting UP’s application.
The Nov. 2 hearing was designed to consider three separate appeals of the Wasco County Planning Commission’s 5-2 vote on Sept. 26 to approve the project, with 44 conditions. The appeals were from the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and a joint filing from Friends of the Columbia Gorge/Columbia Riverkeeper/Physicians for Social Responsibility. Union Pacific also appealed two conditions in the planning commission’s decision that the railroad believed unduly burdened the railroad’s ability to transport interstate commerce.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act and Wasco County rules allow railroads to make infrastructure enhancements. Railroad projects are considered a permitted use, but are subject to conditional use provisions.
During the hearing, County Commissioner Scott Hege asked UP representatives if the track extension could be shortened or taken in just one direction from Mosier.
“Shortening the project would still leave a bottleneck,” said Clint Schelbitzki, UP’s director of public affairs. “If we’re not able to have the full mileage, we’d still end up with stopped trains at the siding.”
Schelbitzki added that the siding would increase the “fluid capacity” of the rail line by an additional five to seven trains per day, meaning those trains would not need to stop in Mosier to wait for another train to pass. He added that did not necessarily mean there would be more trains using the line, only that traffic would more efficiently move over the route.
Hege also asked if Mosier residents should expect more noise if the track extension is allowed.
“We don’t think there would be a significant increase in noise,” said Wes Lujan, UP’s vice president of public affairs.
When the commissioners asked if the project would result in an increased number of trains and whether the railroad had considered using a route other than the Columbia River Gorge to move goods through the area, Bob Belt, assistant vice president of law for UP, said the county had no authority to regulate those factors.
“Regulating the number of trains is pre-empted by federal law, and if the county tells us to send trains somewhere else, we respectfully submit that also is prohibited by federal law,” Belt said.
One of the proposed conditions the planning commission removed when it earlier voted to allow the railroad to go forward with the project was a requirement that coal cars moving through the area must be covered.
Railroad officials pointed out that covering coal loads is not required by the Surface Transportation Board or the Federal Railroad Administration, and noted that it was a moot issue in any case.
“At this time we do not haul coal west of Boardman,” Lujan said.
Boardman is about 80 miles east of The Dalles.
Amber Penn-Roco, a member of the Chehalis Tribe, spoke on behalf of the tribes during the hearing. She said the project would further impact tribal access to the river.
“This interferes with our treaty rights,” she explained. “Tribal members hunt, fish, and gather at traditional places, and the prosed railroad expansion has the potential to impact our rights to hunt and fish in accustomed areas.”
Penn-Roco said increased train traffic could restrict access to the river and make for unsafe conditions.
“It increases the risk of injury or death, and increase the chance of derailments. These impacts must be addressed,” she said. “At many fishing sites, the only access is by crossing train tracks.”
Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, told the county commissioners she was adamantly opposed to extending the tracks through Mosier, where a Union Pacific oil train derailed and burned in June.
“What two tracks will do is increase risks, turning a bottleneck into a spillway and make our town unlivable during construction and beyond,” Burns said. “We all fear double-tracking will have severe consequences for our town and would increase the capacity of volatile products going through. enough.”