SEATTLE — An Oregon county had substantial evidence when it denied Union Pacific Railroad’s proposed track expansion along the Columbia River where an oil train derailed last year, a board ruled Tuesday.
The Columbia River Gorge Commission upheld the findings by Wasco County commissioners who cited concerns about the project’s impacts on the treaty rights of Native American tribes in rejecting the railroad’s application last November.
Omaha, Nebraska-based Union Pacific sought to reverse the commissioner’s denial. The railroad argued in part that local law is pre-empted by federal law governing railroad transportation and that county commissioners also didn’t specify what treaty rights were at issue or how they would be affected.
Union Pacific sought a permit in 2015 to add about four miles of a second mainline to existing tracks in and around Mosier, Oregon.
The June 3, 2016, train wreck in the tiny Oregon town sparked a massive fire and renewed concerns about the safety of oil trains rolling through the region.
“We are pleased to see that the Columbia River Gorge Commission broke with the trend of allowing railroads to violate our right,” JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, said in a statement. “We know the fight is not over, and we will not rest, but it is good to see progress being made in Wasco County and with the Gorge Commission.”
Michael Lang, conservation director for the Friends of Columbia River Gorge, said: “It’s a big win for the national scenic area. It means that railroads are not exempt from (Columbia River Gorge) protection laws.”
Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said after Tuesday’s meeting held in The Dalles, Oregon, that he wasn’t clear yet what the company’s next steps are.
In his statement, Jacobs noted that the railroad separately obtained project approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Wasco County planning commission also approved the project with conditions that the railroad mostly agreed with, he said.
“The 4.02-mile track extension project will enhance the fluidity of Oregon’s rail network and reduce emissions by reducing the number of locomotives idling in the Gorge,” the statement said.
After Wasco County planners approved the project in September, the Yakama Nation appealed, saying the project violated tribal treaty rights. The tribe said the expansion would increase train traffic along the Columbia River and interfere with tribal members’ ability to access fishing sites that lie alongside those train tracks.
Wasco County commissioners reversed the county planners’ approval. Union Pacific appealed in December.
The railroad also sued Wasco County and the Columbia River Gorge Commission in federal court in Portland in January. A judge sided with three Northwest tribes and dismissed the railroad’s complaint in March.
Separately, three groups including Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of Columbia River Gorge and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility also appealed the county’s decision to deny Union Pacific’s application.
While the groups agreed that the application should be denied based on tribal treaty rights, they also argued that commissioners should have denied the project based on other factors such as wildlife habitat and natural resources.
The commissioners on Tuesday declined to decide those issues.