Public comment deadline extended to Oct. 31; had been Sept. 29
The public comment deadline has been extended 32 days to Oct. 31, 2023, the Department of Environmental Quality announced Friday, Sept. 29. Requests from the public led to the extension, the DEQ said in a brief announcement. For more information, click here.
Railroad Property cleanup plan leads to lively debate
By Craig Breon for Ashland.news
A lively and at times contentious discussion emerged at the Ashland Public Library Wednesday night, as the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) hosted a public meeting focused on proposed cleanup plans for the Union Pacific Railroad Rail Yard Site (Railroad Property) northeast of Ashland’s downtown.
The cleanup, expected to commence in the summer of 2024 and to require several months of work, will allow Union Pacific and one or more land developers to plan for a mixed-use, residential and commercial project for the site.
Since 1996, when railcar maintenance and repair operations ceased on the Railroad Property, the city and Union Pacific have engaged in a lengthy back and forth about future uses for the roughly 20-acre site, with differing densities and types of use considered. These discussions of possible development scenarios have strongly impacted the cleanup plans, as differing land uses often dictate the level of cleanup required. The westernmost 3 acres of the property was previously certified clean and developed as mixed-use.
For more than 100 years, the railroad property was used by Southern Pacific as a refueling, maintenance and repair yard. While the railroad tracks remain in use today, most of the buildings were removed in the 1980s after Union Pacific acquired the property. Left behind by decades of working on the railroad are heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, and heavy hydrocarbons associated with bunker fuel and other petroleum products.
The proposed cleanup will focus on two areas. A minimum of 1.5 feet of contaminated soil will be removed from the western 8.7 acres of the site and moved eastwards to a 3-acre area, where contamination reaches about 9 feet below the surface. That area of consolidated soils will then be compacted, covered with about one foot of healthy soil, and then vegetated with native plants. Further east on the site, an area of 2.85 acres was not used for railroad purposes and was not considered as part of the cleanup project.
A previously approved cleanup plan would have removed most all of the contaminated soil and trucked it offsite hundreds of miles to a hazardous waste disposal site in Arlington, Oregon. Union Pacific proposed the new plan as a result of changes in federal regulations, evolving concepts for future land uses, negative comments on the past plan, and financial considerations.
Wednesday night’s gathering consisted of a 15-minute presentation followed by more than an hour of Q&A, with about 25 members of the public attending. DEQ had four staff members present, including a hydrogeologist and a toxicologist, and Union Pacific had three representatives. Three city of Ashland staff members attended, though they did not speak. While the city has a keen interest in future development of the Railroad Property, it has no authority over the cleanup plans.
Ashland resident and Railroad Property neighbor Nancy Nelson began the Q&A with vehement questions and criticism. She raised the specter of damage to “state and federally protected” wetlands on the site. She strongly preferred the previous plan to haul all contaminated soil offsite for disposal and questioned why and especially how those plans changed, referring to a “shady deal” and “betrayal of the neighborhood.” She pointedly remarked on the fact that the public meeting was occurring just two days before the closing of public comments on the proposed cleanup, implying that the public had little chance to review and have input on the proposal.
In a question to staff after the meeting, Ashland Planning Manager Brandon Goldman stated that the identified wetlands, near the corner of Oak Street and Hersey Street and adjacent to the Buddhist Temple, “were protected and enhanced during the first phase of development and would be in no way impacted by the proposed cleanup.”
DEQ hydrogeologist Don Hanson, who has worked on the various cleanup proposals for more than a decade, cited a specific change to federal regulations that made onsite consolidation and capping of soils more desirable, while stating of the previous cleanup plan, “We got a lot of pushback about trucking (contaminated soils) through the community.”
DEQ engineer and Project Manager for the Railroad Property cleanup Margaret Oscilia addressed the process questions, admitting that there had been “starts and stops” over the years, yet noting that the current plan had been released to the public nearly a year ago and had been discussed previously before the Ashland Planning Commission and others, as well as being the subject of extensive public noticing. She emphasized the changes in regulations and expected land uses that had occurred since 2000 and noted that, because Union Pacific has entered into a voluntary cleanup program with DEQ, her agency has approval authority and oversight of the cleanup but could not dictate to Union Pacific the exact methodology, so long as pollutant standards were met.
Other meeting participants posed a number of more technical questions, including how soil would be moved onsite, dust control measures, potential groundwater impacts, soil capping techniques, and resulting possible uses of the eastern and western ends of the property. DEQ staff and Union Pacific representatives fielded these questions with some detail, citing air monitoring equipment and standard dust control practices, showing graphics of soil compaction, capping, and vegetation, and stating that there are possible future uses of the still contaminated area, such as a parking lot or parkland, but that any such future use would be subject to further pollutant control measures and DEQ approval. Years of past soil and water quality monitoring had showed little to no movement of the pollutants, due to the types of metals and hydrocarbons involved.
More than one resident contended that simply leaving the contaminants in place would be preferable. DEQ’s Hanson countered by saying contaminants would be more controlled after remediation than they are now.
Ideas for alternate land uses also came forward from the audience, including using the site for solar panels or planting sunflowers. Union Pacific representative Aaron Hunt noted that such concepts were not part of the company’s traditional business.
In a more overarching statement, DEQ Project Manager Oscilia assured the public that the plan as proposed utilized “very common engineering control(s)” and DEQ had confidence in the future protection of the public and wildlife from contaminants. Nonetheless, some members of the public remained concerned about or opposed to the cleanup plan.
DEQ will now take time to respond to oral and written comments before issuing a Record of Decision (RoD) for the Railroad Property cleanup. Once the RoD is complete, detailed project plans will be developed between Union Pacific and DEQ, and the cleanup is expected to begin next summer. There will be post-project monitoring and additional measures may be needed depending on the ultimate land use decisions made by future developers and the city.
Email Ashland resident, lawyer and former environmental law instructor Craig Breon at email@example.com.
Sept. 29: Corrections to original article made: Union Pacific acquired the rail yard from Southern Pacific, but did not operate it as a rail yard; a minimum of 1.5, not 3 feet of contaminated soil will be removed from designated areas; Nancy, not Linda, Nelson, asked the first question.