Railroad sues over Mosier track project

TRACKS at Mosier.

Photo by Jesse Burkhardt
TRACKS at Mosier.

The legal conflict over a train track expansion project in Mosier has risen to federal court.

Union Pacific Railroad on Tuesday sued Wasco County and the Columbia River Gorge Commission in an attempt to push the development forward.

Attorneys with the railroad filed a complaint in federal court in Portland, seeking an injunction to allow UP to kick off its $42 million, nearly five mile track extension project.

“This complaint arises out of the (Wasco County Board of) Commissioners’ attempt to veto a track expansion project necessary for the development of the national rail system,” the court document states.

Justin Jacobs, UP spokesman, explained that the proposed construction would eliminate a chokepoint that squeezes Gorge train traffic.

“The project will alleviate a severe freight train bottleneck, enhancing the fluidity of Oregon’s rail network and allowing Union Pacific to better serve the Pacific Northwest economy,” Jacobs said.

The project area extends from Memaloose State Park to a tunnel at the Hood River County line.

Wasco County’s elected board halted the Mosier track extension plan last November, citing violations to the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area ordinance and Native American tribal treaty rights, The Dalles Chronicle reported.

Their decision is under appeal before the Gorge Commission, an agency made up of Oregon and Washington representatives.

UP’s federal lawsuit came roughly seven months after a fiery oil train derailment in Mosier, which has invoked backlash from local activists and elected leaders against fossil fuel transportation — and the track expansion project.

Groups have said the project will allow more trains to roll through the Gorge per day. Union Pacific officials said that amount won’t necessarily change.

Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, argued UP is trying to exempt itself from local rules in the Scenic Area Act by suing in federal court.

“This lawsuit shows Union Pacific’s callous disregard for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, tribal treaty rights and the safety of communities throughout the Gorge,” Lang said. “We look forward to challenging the railroads claims in federal court.”

Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, called UP’s action “predictable.”

“They do not wish to respect local, regional and National Scenic Area process. We urge for justice at this level and protection of our communities,” Burns said.

Jacobs acknowledged local concerns in light of the Mosier derailment, asserting that UP has been transparent in planning its track extension project. He argued the project could have an environmental benefit as well, reduced emissions due to fewer idling trains.

A Federal Railway Administration report last summer blamed UP for the train wreck, caused by broken rail fasteners.

Since the derailment, Union Pacific has taken numerous safety measures, Jacobs said, such as replacing the lag bolts with “more robust rail spikes” on the eight mile curve at Mosier and carrying out thorough inspections.

UP’s 17-page complaint was filed Jan. 10. The suit for “declaratory and injunctive release” names board members the planning director of Wasco County, and all six Oregon-based members of the Gorge Commission, as defendants.

See www.thedalleschronicle.com for more coverage.

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