Photo by Jesse Burkhardt
A grain train rolls westbound through The Dalles on Union Pacific’s mainline through the Columbia River Gorge. A recent meeting between railroad officials and area government leaders was geared to establish improved communications on a variety of issues.
As of Friday, October 13, 2017
Representatives of the two major railroads that operate in the Columbia River Gorge and government leaders from around the area recently met in an effort to bridge communication gaps amid controversy.
In a “listening summit” that stretched over six hours at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center in Stevenson, railroad officials from Union Pacific (on the Oregon side of the Columbia River), and BNSF (on the Washington side), met with local mayors, county officials, and other community leaders to discuss a variety of issues. Nearly 40 people attended the Sept. 28 session, which was not open to the public.
Darren Nichols, who previously served as executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, helped organize the meeting and acted as its mediator.
“This was to get the organizational ball rolling,” explained Wasco County Commission Chair Rod Runyon. “I would say that there was a bit of skepticism in the room, but all in all it turned out to be as billed, a listening session.”
“The railroad officials wanted to hear from us our suggestions for better communications, and so for six hours they got to listen, and it was very interesting,” said The Dalles Mayor Steve Lawrence.
Lawrence and Runyon were among the participants, and both said they thought the gathering was positive.
“We talked about everything A to Z, and there will be another meeting after they have reviewed all of the suggestions and complaints,” Lawrence said. “I think Darren (Nichols) did a great job of saying, ‘be respectful but also be clear’ in what you want.”
Runyon said there was a strong representation of leaders from communities around the Gorge.
“The meeting was conversational and well attended by a variety of local government entities from both sides of the river and several representatives from the Tribes,” he said. “The meeting appeared to be the beginning of a dialogue.”
According to Runyon, all the participants were specifically invited. Those attending had their concerns written down and placed on large sheets of papers that were taped to the walls. “Those questions may form the structure of a future meeting, if this format continues,” he said.
Lawrence presented two key issues he wanted railroad officials to address: the odors from the AmeriTies tie plant in The Dalles, and safety concerning hazardous shipments through the Gorge.
“The plant says the minute the ties hit the ground, they belong to the railroad and they can’t move them until the railroad wants to,” Lawrence said. “So I said again, why don’t you find a place to get them out of here instead of having them sit in the sun?”
Lawrence tied his question about the safety of transporting hazardous materials to the Union Pacific oil train derailment in Mosier in June 2016.
“We learned during the Mosier experience that when you have an oil fire like that, you can’t just put foam on it to put it out, you have to put water on it first to cool it off or the foam will not work,” he said.
“OK, that’s great when you’re in Mosier, Hood River, or The Dalles where you have access to water, but tell me what you’re going to do if you’re halfway between Hood River and Cascade Locks. I want to know where your water is; I want to know your response time; I want to know where your foam is; I want to know what your plan is.”
According to Lawrence, railroad officials will schedule another meeting later this year to address the questions and concerns that were raised by local government leaders at the initial meeting.
“We’ll see what they come back with,” he said. “One of the things they said at the end of the meeting I thought was interesting – ‘a lot of these problems are solvable.’”