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Railroad, state regulators rethink spill response

Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Railroad and state regulators are rethinking how they respond to spills in the aftermath of the costly Gold Creek cleanup.

''No matter what you spend on safety, it's cheaper than $9.3 million,'' said Ernie Piper, whose job is making sure the state-owned railroad's trains operate safely.

The $9.3 million is roughly what the railroad has spent so far in its effort to clean up jet fuel spilled in a 15-tanker derailment at Gold Creek 12 months ago. Less than 15 percent of the 120,000 gallons spilled has been recovered, and remediation is expected to continue for years.

The Gold Creek spill was the second in a series of accidents that placed the railroad under scrutiny the past 18 months.

As a federally-owned agency for decades, the Alaska Railroad operated on lean budgets. That ''culture of frugality'' among the railroad's proud, loyal work force endured when the state acquired it in 1985, Piper said.

Now, he said, the railroad is trying to grow a new culture, one that puts safety first and expediency second.

''I don't think, historically, there's ever been a full recognition of the cost of accepting risk,'' Piper said. ''One passenger train derailment, with serious injuries or death, would make Gold Creek look like chump change.''

The derailment at Gold Creek occurred in a remote valley north of Talkeetna. Avalanches blocked the tracks and kept response crews at bay for nearly two days.

When they did reach the scene, crews found leaking tankers half buried in snow. It took a week to clear the tracks and another week to begin scooping up contaminated snow.

Railroad officials and spill-response coordinators from the state Department of Environmental Conservation at first thought the kerosene-like jet fuel would pool atop frozen soil and collect in the snow. But two weeks later, they discovered that it had seeped deep into the ground. The fuel collected above groundwater 30 feet below the surface and threatened to contaminate the Susitna River, an important salmon stream about a quarter-mile west.

In early July, snowmelt and rainfall caused groundwater to surge and contaminated water turned up in a monitoring well drilled 10 feet from the Susitna. A team of University of Alaska scientists has concluded that fuel will reach the river, if it hasn't already.

Piper said the railroad has taken steps to avoid similar accidents.

Three cabooses have been added to the fleet, for a total of six -- enough to put a set of eyes on the rear end of every fuel train, he said.

Snow is plowed from the tracks at least weekly, at a cost of between $20,000 and $25,000 per trip.

Another track inspector has been hired, and tracks are checked more often. At least 60 percent to 70 percent of the line between Fairbanks and Anchorage is covered every day, Piper said. In tricky spots, like curves that caused another derailment near Palmer last summer, inspectors walk the tracks.

A contractor has been hired to review the railroad's trains, tracks and operating procedures and pinpoint weak points in the system. The report is expected next month.

The railroad has bought more spill-response equipment and is joining a co-op of companies to share the costs of stockpiling cleanup gear. Such stockpiles in areas served by the railroad would be required under new legislation proposed earlier this month.

The railroad is contracting with a hazardous waste cleanup company to respond to future spills.

Leslie Pearson, the Department of Environmental Conservation's on-scene coordinator for the Gold Creek spill, said she wants the railroad to outfit a boxcar on every fuel train with pumps, boom and other response equipment.

Piper said it would make more sense to stash smaller amounts of lighter equipment throughout trains. That way, a fuel train's three-person crew would be able to get the gear close to a spill quicker, he said.

Locomotives already carry smaller amounts of sorbent and gear to plug leaks in tankers. The railroad also is equipping spill-response cars that can be pulled to the scene of a derailment, along with a mobile machine shop to repair cleanup equipment.

The fuel train that jumped the tracks at Gold Creek had pulled onto a siding to allow another train to pass. When it backed out of the siding, ice and snow that had built up on the rails caused the wheels of a locomotive to slide off. The derailment occurred when the train pulled forward.

Piper said the railroad is lengthening another siding farther north at Hurricane, so trains don't have to pass at Gold Creek where the grade is trickier. Trains are no longer backing out of the siding at Gold Creek. The railroad is doing a better job of clearing snow from the rails north of Talkeetna.

''Those are the things that really make a difference, on the prevention side,'' he said. ''We have more of a prevention problem than a response problem.''



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