Railroad says it will move ties ‘in coming weeks’

Thousands of railroad ties parked near the tracks running through Ashland's Railroad District have aroused complaints about the odor from the creosote-soaked ties. Drew Fleming photo
January 27, 2022

Storage of creosote-soaked ties near Railroad Park sparked complaints

Note: See end of story for an update to this story received just as it was being posted.

By Diarmuid McGuire

“I don’t sleep with the window open any more. I limit my gardening. I don’t walk the bike path.”

Jane Ferguson’s life has changed since Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad (CORP) deposited 5,000 to 10,000 newly creosoted wooden ties along the tracks in Ashland’s Railroad District, starting before Christmas.

The great wall of ties stretches along the railroad right-of-way for nearly three city blocks between 6th and 8th streets. It passes just a few yards away from the popular Railroad Park. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, a strong creosote odor pervades the A Street business district, as well as newly developed condominiums and commercial spaces on the north side of the tracks.

Jane Ferguson at Railroad Park in Ashland with stacked railroad ties across the tracks in the background. Diarmuid McGuire photo

Ferguson, active at 67 despite chronic asthma and COPD, lives close to Railroad Park and adjacent to the railway. In addition to the impact of the creosote vapors on her own life, she is concerned for children who normally throng the Railroad Park playground. “The stench is just terrible,” she says.

Creosote, distilled from coal or wood tar, is used as a pesticide and preservative. Chromated copper arsenate is also used to treat railroad ties. A third of the chemicals applied to the ties “outgas” over their service life. The “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) and “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” (PAHs) behind the stench noticed by Ferguson are recognized as a health risk to railroad workers.

One of the emitted chemicals, benzene, is known to cause leukemia. PAHs are associated with lung, skin and bladder cancers. Although the toxic effects of these chemicals have been well documented, published studies examining the health risks of creosote focus on railroad workers and indoor exposures. Outdoor exposure effects do not appear to be well-documented and storage is apparently not regulated. 

Ferguson reached out to city officials but learned that municipalities have virtually no leverage over railroads. According to Ashalnd Public Works Director Scott Fleury, “We have no authority over rail operations and were not notified of the site being used as temporary storage. We did discuss with the road master and were informed that it is part of the crosstie replacement project meant to last a few months. Our fire chief also visited the site to see if there was any specific item related to fire code that he could point to in order to have them removed, but there isn’t.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes creosote as a potential hazard but has not set regulation or enforcement standards. According the the EPA website, “Creosote is currently undergoing registration review, a process EPA conducts for all pesticides every 15 years to ensure that products can carry out their intended function without creating unreasonable risks to human health and the environment.”

On Wednesday, Ferguson encountered a CORP engineer in a railroad vehicle on the tracks near her home. The engineer, who did not identify himself, told Ferguson that 10,000 ties are stockpiled in Ashland and that work on repairing the tracks, which will involve removing stored ties, will not begin until April or May. He said that CORP plans to cover the stacks with tarps but did not know when that might happen. 

The smell of creosote could continue to be a feature of life in Ashland’s Railroad District for some time to come. With warm weather, outgassing likely will increase. It is not clear that tarping the ties will ameliorate the problem. Press accounts from other communities with similar experiences are not encouraging. On Feb. 2, 2017, the Nogales International reported that Union Pacific Railroad had tarped creosoted ties that had produced a sustained outcry among Nogales residents. “Even with the tarps in place, however, the smell remained strong as of Monday morning,” according to an article by staff reporter Arielle Zionts. Photos of the Nogales site indicate the number of ties involved in that incident was just a fraction of the thousands currently piled in Ashland.

Ferguson also contacted Rep. Pam Marsh of House District 5, who responded with a statement of support. “I am very concerned about the impact of railroad tie storage on Ashland residents,” Marsh stated. “I have even had reports of a nearby resident planning to move. In general, we welcome the revival of rail transportation,  but railroad operators must also be good neighbors. Open-air storage of toxic or noxious materials in a populated area is clearly unacceptable.”

Marsh reached out to registered lobbyist Ryan Tribbett of Pac/West Lobby Group, who represents CORP in Oregon’s legislature. Tribbett told her that CORP is planning to cover the ties but provided no further details. 

Until today, Ferguson’s best hope for an official assessment of  the situation and possible action was Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which fields air pollution complaints on their website. But on Thursday morning, DEQ posted the following notice on their Pollution Complaint page: 

“DEQ has received multiple complaints about placement of railroad ties near public walking paths. DEQ has no regulatory authority over railroad ties, including where they are placed or how they are managed. Concerns should be directed to the railroad. According to Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the primary health effects associated with creosote are related to increases in lifetime cancer risk over years of exposure. Because the presence of the stacked ties is temporary, it is not likely that exposures could last long enough to appreciably increase lifetime cancer risk. Perception of odors can trigger symptoms such as headache and nausea independent of any toxic responses. Odor-related symptoms are temporary and reversible and do not indicate that long-term harm is being done.”

DEQ representative Wilson Wade called Ferguson to confirm this news. He reported that, although 12 complaints had been received from Ashland to date, the OHA finding tied DEQ’s hands.

Ferguson replied that, although Ashland may be looking at an unknown period of exposure to creosote fumes, health risks are not her only concern.

“It’s about our quality of life,” she said.

UPDATE, Jan. 27: Thursday afternoon, Rep. Marsh received an email from CORP lobbyist Ryan Tribbett with an “approved statement” from the firm’s corporate office. CORP explained that the tie issue was a consequence of “constraints in the supply chain.” But relief may be on the way for Jane Ferguson and her neighbors. The statement concluded with a promise of remedial action: “The CORP is dedicated to being a good neighbor and will move the ties to an alternative site on the railroad in the coming weeks.”

Email Ashland.news contributing writer Diarmuid McGuire at mcdiarmuid@me.com. McGuire is married to Pam Marsh.

Railroad ties stacked near the tracks in Ashland. Drew Fleming photo

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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