Investigators: Railroad fire regulation stopped in its tracks

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on November 13, 2009 at 12:44 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 4 at 5:16 PM

There are thousands of miles of railroad track in Washington State. From those rails came the sparks that started hundreds of fires.

Earlier this year, State lawmakers tried to put a stop to fire hazards created by railroad operations, but they were stopped in their tracks. The KING 5 Investigators have been looking into who was behind that and why.

Fires from rail cars and track maintenance are a century old problem in Skamania County, along the Columbia River in Southwest Washington.

"It causes a lot of fear. It causes a lot of anxiety," says Skamania Co. Commissioner Paul Pearce.

That anxiety was stoked by fires like the Broughton Mill blaze near White Salmon in 2007. It swept across six houses and sent homeowners scrambling for their lives.

Investigators determined the fire was started by a grinder, which is a rail maintenance machine, that was scraping its way through the river town on a dry and windy day.

"For some reason it always seems to be mid-summer they come through this part of the line," says Pearce.

Commissioner Pearce says Burlington Northern Santa Fe has fought at least two decades of county regulation, including a proposed grinding ban during the hottest summer months. In a letter the railroad's lawyer argued only the federal government can do that.

"I think they're attitude tends to be on the arrogant side," says Pearce.

When the state legislature considered new statewide regulations this year, records KING 5 found show that two parties testified against them: Burlington Northern and Tacoma Rail -- a regional line which sparked this fire in a Pierce county neighborhood. The bill died when lawmakers were advised it was pre-empted by federal law. However, the Federal Railroad Administration told us it has no regulations for maintenance, like grinding, so some critics say the feds are asleep at the switch.

Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration declined an on-camera interview, but believe the rail industry has policed itself well. Yet, the KING 5 Investigators uncovered 234 fires across Washington attributed to railroads since 1998 in state firefighting databases.

1998 is the year that Spokane farmer Robert Heider died in his combine when a Burlington Northern rail fire charred 20-thousand acres. His daughter Lori Olson says, "Sooner or later the odds will catch up again and they will kill somebody."

Burlington Northern's spokesperson says the company has made positive changes, investing in new locomotives and brakes that throw off fewer sparks.

"In many cases (Burlington Northern Santa Fe's) standards are higher than the federal standards and it's not in our best interest to start fires," says Gus Melonas. He says during this summer's record heat the company barred grinding when the winds exceeded 15 miles per hour. It was a temporary policy, but one that pushed the number of railroad fires to a summertime low.

The drop may also have resulted from Skamania County commissioners creative way around the federal restrictions. They enacted a new ordinance that imposes fines against grinder crews who start fires. It may be the only ordinance of it's kind in the nation.

"Maybe we can't regulate the railroad," says Pearce, "but the guy that's driving that grinder, we can at least regulate what he does"

So far there have been no objections from the railroad and no grinder fires.

The sponser of this year's failed state legislation, Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside, says he plans to revamp the proposal and try to pass it into law again.

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