Resisting Railroad Supremacy In Oregon
A growing movement to make railroads safer and more accountable is standing
up to Union Pacific’s (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 nation’s largest chemical transporter
and the largest railroad, according to UP’s 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
Pacific’s] 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 Pacific’s
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
UP’s intimidation tactics. Spokespersons for the new coalition said the
railroad intimidates workers to discourage reporting of accidents.
Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood borders the railroad yard on the east.
The city’s founder built his cabin in the center of Whiteaker before the
railroad came to town. The neighborhood, which is named after Oregon’s
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
group’s incidence by about 25 percent. The figures included only problems
that appeared in 1995 or later, and only while the respondents were living
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 wasn’t 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 yard’s 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
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 Pacific’s vegetation control manager, Tony Galinis,
to a nonconfrontational fact-finding meeting. Galinis cancelled hours before
Summer opened with a public meeting between the railroad, the DEQ, and
the railroad’s 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
Local community activist Carol Berg, who had heard the radio announcement,
called me and asked whether I would attend. Berg wasn’t 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 room’s 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 railroad’s 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. ERM’s 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
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.
ERM’s report to the DEQ on the results of their tests contained a folded
map of Whiteaker’s 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 map’s 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 Pacific’s response dismissed all those who set foot on UP property
as “trespassers” who would be dealt with by the railroad’s 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 CARP’s first meeting, the ODA reached its actual conclusions
on the March pesticide application. The railroad’s 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 Weinman’s 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 FRA’s hazardous materials specialist.
Armes’s 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 it’s 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 FRA’s own figure from a 1997 inspection of Union
Pacific’s 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 cars—“Hazardous Materials on the Rails” reports
a single trailer car carrying breakfast cereal, body parts going to an
incinerator, and poison—Armes 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 don’t accept railroad supremacy.
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.