Federal court dismisses UP lawsuit

Rail officials say ruling will be appealed

A westbound Union Pacific freight train idles on the mainline (left) in The Dalles while waiting for the single-track near Mosier to clear. UP’s proposed $42 million siding extension project near Mosier is geared to reduce the time trains need to spend waiting to get through the area.

Photo by Jesse Burkhardt.
A westbound Union Pacific freight train idles on the mainline (left) in The Dalles while waiting for the single-track near Mosier to clear. UP’s proposed $42 million siding extension project near Mosier is geared to reduce the time trains need to spend waiting to get through the area.

The legal back and forth over the proposed four-mile extension of a railroad siding at Mosier continues.

On March 8, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken dismissed a lawsuit filed by Union Pacific Railroad in January because the railroad failed to include three Indian treaty tribes as defendants in the case.

Aiken ruled UP did not name the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation as defendants. Because the tribes’ treaty rights were at the heart of the case, the railroad’s failure to name them as defendants in the lawsuit required dismissal of the case pursuant to federal court rules.

Railroad officials said they were disappointed with the court’s move, and plan to continue efforts to gain approval for the project.

“Union Pacific disagrees with Judge Aiken's recent decision to dismiss our suit regarding the Mosier siding extension project,” said Justin Jacobs, Union Pacific’s director of corporate relations in Roseville, Calif. “We plan to appeal the ruling.”

Opponents of the railroad project praised the ruling.

“The court’s decision today is a victory for the tribes, Gorge communities like Mosier, and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area,” said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, one of the parties in the case. “If Union Pacific had its way, it would have been able to do whatever it wanted within a federally designated National Scenic Area, wreaking havoc all along the Columbia River.”

According to UP officials, the Mosier area represents a significant bottleneck for interstate freight movements in the Gorge, and to alleviate this concern, the railroad wants to extend an existing 1.35-mile siding at Mosier.

If approved, the additional four miles of second mainline track would extend east and west of Mosier in a project expected to cost a approximately $42 million.

The extended track would allow trains to pass and keep moving rather than, as is often the case currently, being forced to stop on the siding at Mosier or at other locations while waiting for other trains to clear the track ahead.

To highlight their opposition to the railroad extension project, opponents pointed to the derailment of a UP oil train in Mosier last June. Although no one was injured in the accident, several tank cars exploded and caught fire, leading to an evacuation of the west end of town.

In January 2015, Union Pacific filed a land use application with Wasco County pursuant to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act for its expansion project.

Last September, the Wasco County Planning Commission approved the project with a total of 44 conditions. In November, the Wasco County Commission rejected the track project, saying it believed it violated the National Scenic Area ordinance and infringed on Native American tribal treaty rights.

In January, UP named the Wasco County Commission, the county’s planning director and members of the Columbia River Gorge Commission in a lawsuit that claimed “federal law pre-empts the permitting process imposed” by local government jurisdictions.

UP’s attorneys argued that the federal Surface Transportation Board has exclusive jurisdiction over railroads and the construction and operation of railroad facilities.

The Wasco County Commissioners’ denial of the project remains on appeal to the Gorge Commission (CRGC). The lawsuit sought to stop it. The appeal hearing is set for June 13.

“The Gorge Commission is extremely pleased with the outcome of this case and grateful for the Columbia River Treaty Tribes’ assistance in getting this case dismissed early in the litigation,” said Jeff Litwak, counsel for the CRGC. “The pending appeals of Wasco County’s decision are again solidly back before the Gorge Commission. We are looking forward to receiving the parties’ briefing, reviewing the record, and considering the parties’ oral arguments.”

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Mosier oil train fire

Clips from oil train fire in Mosier, Friday, June 3, 2016. by Mark B. Gibson/The Dalles Chronicle. Enlarge

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