Ashland railroad yard cleanup derails again

ASHLAND, Ore.– Plans that have been going on for years to decontaminate and cleanup an old railroad lot in Ashland have been stalled again after recent EPA standards were changed.

What was once a locomotive maintenance facility for the city between 1887 to 1986, an empty 20-acre lot, owned by Union Pacific, currently resides across the tracks from Ashland’s Railroad District.

Recently, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved a proposal from Union Pacific for decontamination. According to DEQ officials though, Union Pacific soon came back and said due to the EPA changes, the site would need to be reevaluated.

“We were notified in late 2017, that they had gone to withdraw their work plan based on changes in the toxicity factors for one of the site contaminants we were concerned about,” said Greg Aitken, Oregon DEQ project manager.

However, according to Union Pacific, Oregon DEQ approached the company as they were ready to go forward with the cleanup plan.

“Recently, we were prepared to move forward with the site remediation,” said Justin Jacobs, Union Pacific spokesman. “Then the Oregon DEQ asked us because of new parameters or new regulation that came out, if we could go back and gather some more data.”

Still, the contaminant, benzo(a)pyrene, was deemed “less toxic” than original studies showed resulting in adoption of those standards by DEQ and changes to the toxicity factor requiring decontamination.

Since 1998, the DEQ has been working to decontaminate the site after over a hundred years of use by railroads, building up toxic chemicals in the land. Southern Pacific, the owner at the time, agreed to clean the site. However that company was bought out by Union Pacific who then inherited the task of decontamination.

Over the years, Union Pacific has tried submitting other work plans. Once in 2006 which was denied for several reasons, one being community objection to removal of 58,000 tons of contaminated soil through the city. Another was submitted in 2013 and was ultimately approved as the plan seen today.

Both sides are in agreement that the site should be cleaned up and DEQ acknowledges that the land is not highly toxic.

“It poses a future risk depending on how it’s developed,” said Aitken. “But in it’s current vacant state of disuse, it actually isn’t risky to people or the environment.”

Still, if Union Pacific were to ever look at selling the land, it would need to be cleaned up. While the current plan is delayed, the company has agreed to go back and perform data assessments of the site, something that hasn’t been updated in over 20 years.

“Certain site’s contaminants like lead and arsenic could be better understood at that property,” said Aitken. “So Union Pacific has evidently agreed to look at that and to fill in some data gaps that exist and re-look at site risk.”

If all goes well, a new plan could be written up in the next year after which public hearings will be held within the community to update and notify residents of what’s happening.

“Relook at the site risk, take into consideration potential future land uses with the development of that property,” said Aitken. “So that we can determine what any clean up is actually needed.”




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