Years after call for replacement, rail bridge still carries millions of gallons of crude oil

Years after call for replacement, rail bridge still carries millions of gallons of crude oil »Play Video

SCAPPOOSE, Ore. – Last week, an oil train derailed in Lynchubrg, Va., exploding and spilling 30,000 gallons of crude oil into the James River.

Last year, an oil train exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people.

And today, an oil train carrying millions of gallons of crude will cross a bridge over the south fork of Scappoose Creek – a bridge that’s in such bad shape, the Oregon Department of Transportation recommended it be replaced years ago.

“You can see it's just deteriorating and falling apart,” Scappoose logger Jeff Heller said.

Heller brought the rotting Portland & Western Rail bridge near Highway 30 to the attention of the On Your Side Investigators after watching it and worrying about it for years.

The trains that cross the bridge carry tremendous loads.

“Each car hold 30,000-plus gallons of crude oil,” Heller said. “I think there was 4.3 million gallons of crude oil on that particular train.

“Locomotives that are going across this bridge … weigh 205 tons, roughly. Was this bridge designed to carry these huge locomotives?”

The bridge was built in 1950 as part of the 97-mile Portland-to-Astoria line.

Though rot is obvious on the exteriors, Heller said he’s more worried about the damage that’s not immediately visible.

“The thing that concerns me the most is they're creosoted posts,” he said. “Creosoted posts rot from the inside out.”

As oil production in the U.S. has shot up, so too have crude oil rail loads.

Nationwide, they’ve increased 400 percent since 2005.

Just last year, they went up 250 percent in Oregon.

The oil that comes through Scappoose is destined for a refinery in Clatskanie, then barged up to Washington.

The whole process was revamped after the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

In response to the disaster, the federal government established prevention  and response plans for oil ships and oil pipelines.

It wasn’t until the past few weeks that Congress began discussions about improving the safety of rail cars that carry crude oil.

But there’s been virtually no public discussion about the structural integrity of the rail lines themselves – even the ones that run near fragile waterways.

Documents uncovered by the On Your Side Investigators show it’s a discussion that’s overdue.

An independent assessment commissioned by ODOT in 2009 shows P&W has 11 bridges on its lines rated in “poor” condition.

Poor, for a wooden bridge, means there is “extensive decay” and that “load capacity might be affected.”

Which is Which?

Which bridges are in ‘poor’ condition, and on which line? KATU went looking through the ODOT Rail Division website for the answers. The assessors from David Evans & Associates provided nearly a dozen foundational documents when they first presented their report, including existing bridge inspections, a map showing the locations of the bridges in the study, notes taken during on-site visits, and a summary of each bridges’ maintenance, load capacity and remaining life span.  Those materials were included the in the paper copy of the study four years ago – but ODOT chose not to include them in the online version of the report.

You can get some idea of what was left out, however, in the ‘Bridge Assessment’ section on page 13 of the main report. The authors describe how the team chose to review two “representative” bridges in depth, as a way of evaluating how well the inspections filed by the railroads reflected the actual condition of the bridge. One of the bridges chosen belonged to P&W, Bridge 743.27.

A Condition of Failure

Milepost number 743.27 puts the bridge on the Willburg line, which links mostly Union Pacific trains (and  likely include recent UP oil shipments) from Milwaukie through Tigard and Tualatin, to Beaverton and the rest of the P&W system. Here’s what the report had to say:

“… for Bridge 743.27 the last available report was from 1977. There were also current [P&W] timber reports. The timber reports were not as detailed as the 1977 report. The 1977 reports were not considered reliable for comparison ... The study team identified a few piles approaching a condition of failure that were not mentioned in the [P&W] reports. The study team notified [P&W} and encouraged them to take immediate action.”

The assessors tallied up what it would cost to modernize P&W’s bridge inventory to fully accommodate Class I sized loads like today’s oil trains.  For the Astoria line bridges, there would be no quick fix: repairs and upgrades were estimated at $4.8 million.

"Broken Rails are Being Observed"

Documents we found show the condition of the rest of the ‘A-Line’ was hardly any better. The description is the railroad’s own:

“P&W contracted with Sperry in May 2009 to perform ultrasonic tests to the rail on the A-Line. Results were 94 internal defects in the areas were 90 pound rail was located. In addition, P&W is experiencing 1.5 service failures (rails that broke or cracked under trains and found by visual inspection) per mile per year in the 90 pound rail sections. Portions of the current rail line are more than 100 years old and has deteriorated to the point where broken rails are being observed.”
The frank evaluation shows up in a P&W application to Connect Oregon – the state’s infrastructure improvement program. P&W had convinced the state to foot more than half of the initial repair bill for the A-Line – receiving a $6.3 million subsidy, but it seems there were so many problems it would take another $4.7 million to finish the project.  Yet, even with repairs incomplete, P&W stated it had been running Class I sized trains on the A-Line – so-called ‘286K’ loads, shorthand for 286,000 pounds. The trains then were carrying fuel too, not oil but ethanol.

Needs Assessment

KATU searched for paperwork showing what repairs had been made on the A-Line, but there were no maintenance records available on either the ODOT or P&W websites. However, the state’s newest Freight Rail Needs Assessment, drafted just last month, shows that 98 percent of P&W’s rail system has been upgraded to accommodate Class I trains. But P&W has yet to fix its weakest bridges – all 11 are still rated in ‘poor’ condition in the new report. 

Another report, from 1991, recommended the bridge be completely replaced due to poor design.*

"The high water elevation at the highway is controlled by the railroad structure ... structure also appears to be a 'trash rack' which will catch most of the debris during flood events," wrote hydraulic engineer Dave Bryson, in a memo to ODOT's Region 1 Bridge Manager. "The most significant improvements to the flood problems would be achieved by replacing the railroad structure."

Scappoose Fire Chief Mike Griesen said the problem needs to be addressed.

“If it is rotting, then it needs to be inspected and checked out,” he said. “ can be the weak link in the system.”

Neither the railroad company nor the corporation that owns the Scappoose trestle would comment on camera for the story. They also refused to turn over maintenance and inspection records, which they aren’t required to do because they are public entities.

A spokesman did say an inspector deemed the trestle safe after KATU began its investigation.

"It is important to understand that the cosmetic appearance of railroad bridges has nothing to do with determining their strength and suitability for the traffic they carry,” a statement from Genesee and Wyoming reads.

Heller remained unconvinced.

“The people who are shipping this oil ... they could care less about us,” he said. “All they’re worried about is get their oil to Clatskanie, and there is an awful lot of safety issues that need to be addressed.”

*= the 1991 ODOT memo correctly indicates that the bridge belonged to the Burlington Northern (BNSF) railroad. Portland & Western took over responsibility for the bridge when it purchased the Astoria Line from BNSF in 1997.