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Release Date: 06/08/2000
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THURSDAY, JUNE 8, 2000 DOJ: (202) 514-2008
TDD (202) 514-1888 DOT:(202) 493-6024

Train Derailments in Utah and Colorado Led to Fuel Spills

WASHINGTON -- The Union Pacific Railroad will pay an $800,000 fine to resolve environmental claims associated with seven train derailments that spilled oil and other hazardous pollutants into Colorado and Utah waterways. A settlement filed today in federal court in Denver also requires the Omaha, Neb.-based railroad to undertake specific measures to avert environmental damage in the future.

“We are committed to making certain that the railroad industry complies with environmental laws,” said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General for Environment and Natural Resources at the Justice Department. “This agreement will result in increased protection from future derailments and spills that endanger human health and the environment.”

The United States in 1997 sued the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Co. for Clean Water Act violations related to fuel and hazardous substance spills. These railroads subsequently merged with Union Pacific.

The government alleged that the derailments, which occurred from 1992 to 1998, caused the discharge of diesel fuel from ruptured or leaking locomotive fuel tanks. The Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, prohibits the discharge of oil or other hazardous substances into navigable waters or adjoining shorelines.

“Railroads must be held accountable for the safe transport of hazardous materials traveling across our nation by rail,” said Steven A. Herman, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Besides paying a significant penalty, the settlement requires the company to take a series of preventative actions which will greatly reduce the risk of future spills and their threat to public health and the environment.”

Under the agreement, Union Pacific will carry out several actions to reduce the likelihood and severity of fuel spills in the future. Each freight locomotive that Union Pacific buys or leases over the next five years must be equipped with a fuel tank that meets a new industry standard for crash-worthiness adopted by the Association of American Railroads. The company also must equip its hi-rail vehicles with fuel tank patch kits and teach operators how to use them.

In addition, Union Pacific will begin a comprehensive project in Colorado to mitigate the hazards of falling rocks that can cause derailments. The company also must prepare emergency response plans for spills in areas along the Colorado, Gunnison, and the Spanish Fork rivers, which parallel the company’s lines. Finally, the company will undertake cleanup activities, picking up discarded railroad ties, scrap rail, and other materials along railroad rights-of-way in Colorado and Utah.

“This successful prosecution was possible due to the combined efforts of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). “The close coordination among the agencies facilitated a prompt resolution that will ensure that the public’s health and safety are protected,” said FRA Administrator Jolene Molitoris. “I am very pleased that in the years since the incidents underlying the consent decree occurred, the Union Pacific Railroad has made significant progress in improving the safety of its operations by working in partnership with rail labor through the FRA’s Safety Assurance and Compliance Program.”

The derailments, caused by rockslides or improper train handling, resulted in the release of more than 14,000 gallons of fuel, 5,000 tons of taconite, and 800,000 pounds of sulfuric acid. Following each spill, the railroads performed emergency cleanups under the oversight of federal and state officials.

Oil spills can pose a serious threat to human health and the environment, and according to the EPA, one pint of oil released into the water can spread and cover one acre of water surface area and seriously damage an aquatic habitat.

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Fact Sheet – Settlement Agreement Between U.S. and Union Pacific

The agreement reached today between federal officials and the Union Pacific Railroadresolves environmental claims associated with several train derailments.

Two of the derailments at issue occurred due to brake failure on the steep downhill grade of Tennessee Pass, between Minturn and Leadville, Colo.:
  • In November 1994, a runaway train derailed, causing the discharge of 3,990 gallons of diesel fuel and 5,000 tons of taconite (iron ore pellets) into an alpine wetland.
  • In February 1996, a train carrying sulfuric acid derailed and came to rest on the mountainside near historic Camp Hale. The punctured tank cars discharged 800,000 pounds of sulfuric acid in the White River National Forest. The acid spread onto Colorado Highway 24, causing 21 motorists to seek medical care.

Fallen rocks caused two other derailments in Colorado:
  • In March 1992, a Southern Pacific train derailed in the Royal Gorge, a canyon west of Canon City, when a locomotive hit a rock that fell onto the track. About 1,470 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the punctured fuel tank.
  • In April 1994, a lone locomotive hit a large rock in a canyon south of Grand Junction, and about 2,980 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the punctured fuel tank.

Three derailments occurred in Utah:
  • In August 1992, a eastbound train sideswiped an eastbound train, and they derailed next to the Spanish Fork River. Fuel tanks on two of the locomotives ruptured, spilling about 1,470 gallons.
  • In February 1993, one train rear-ended a stopped train, causing 2,900 gallons of diesel fuel to spill from ruptured fuel tanks into a ditch near the Weber River.
  • In June 1998, a spill occurred in Union Pacific’s Provo railyard, when a locomotive derailed during switching operations, puncturing a fuel tank and spilling about 1,512 gallons of diesel fuel into a canal.

United States v. Southern Pacific Transportation Company, Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, and Union Pacific Railroad Company. Case number 97WM - 469, U.S. District Court, Denver, Colo.