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News / Business / Clark County Business

Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad ordered to cease road-building, expansion

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cites unauthorized impacts to aquatic areas

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 20, 2023, 6:36pm

Federal authorities have ordered Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad to cease its road-building and rail-yard-expansion efforts in Chelatchie following a Nov. 16 visit to the site by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Marines Fisheries Service and Environmental Protection Agency.

Impacts from the road work have riled many of the residents living along the rail line who say the railroad isn’t upholding the terms of its lease with the county. Groups, such as Friends of Clark County and Clark County Citizens United, have waded into the battle on opposite sides.

The stop-work order came in a Dec. 18 letter from District Commander Col. Kathryn Sanborn of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the letter, Sanborn said the railroad was “responsible for the placement of fill into waters of the United States without the required Department of the Army authorization.”

During its site visit, the agency said it “documented unauthorized impacts to aquatic areas including the discharge of fill material (rock and wood) into approximately 200 linear feet of tributaries to Chelatchie Creek and adjacent wetlands.”

The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of fill material into U.S. waters, including wetlands, unless previously approved by the Department of the Army. The process for obtaining a permit requires notice of the work to be performed followed by public hearings before the work begins.

The railroad, which leases the 33-mile-long line from Clark County, was previously ordered to cease construction activities by the Washington Department of Ecology in October because the railroad had failed to file for the necessary permits from the state.

Rich Doenges, director for the Department of Ecology’s southwest region, said in a Dec. 13 interview the railroad has begun the application process for a construction stormwater permit.

“There’s still some information that hasn’t been completed yet, so the application is not yet complete,” Doenges said.

The railroad was given 30 days to file the permit application after staff from the state agency visited the Chelatchie work site in October and again in November.

The state and federal agencies were alerted to the railroad’s road-building work by residents living near the Chelatchie site. The residents claim the road work blocked a fish bearing stream, killing hundreds of juvenile steelhead, chinook salmon and other species.

“We don’t know exactly when fish started coming to this stream, … but they have been present for the four years that we have lived here,” Andrew Collins said. “It doesn’t matter how they got here, but rather that they are. We must protect them. We must protect their habitat.”

Eric Temple, president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, has called the accusations “dead fish tales” and denies any impacts to fish, wildlife or waters feeding into Chelatchie Creek.

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Chelatchie resident Jon Warnke, who is leasing part of his property to the railroad for the yard expansion project, said his neighbors are wrong about the railroad.

“One of their goals was that the project would not adversely affect Chelatchie Creek or its tributaries. Our collaboration with (Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad) was marked by their steadfast commitment to environmental responsibility.” Warnke said in a Dec. 11 letter to the county, adding the railroad exceeded its obligations by installing silt fences and culverts and demonstrated a genuine dedication to preserving the environment.

Permits needed

Doenges said the order to stop work applies to both the Chelatchie site and the railroad’s Curtin Creek property between Northeast 72nd Avenue and 87th Avenue, where work has also taken place and is also under investigation by the state Department of Ecology.

“It’s a linear project. … They’re required to apply for permit coverage for the entire project area, all locations, and (are responsible for) maintaining permit coverage for the life cycle of the project,” Doenges said.

Likewise, any permits issued would cover the entire project rather than a specific work site.

Temple initially claimed the work being done was exempt from state and county oversight.

“Railroad maintenance is granted an exemption under the Clean Water Act,” Temple said in a previous interview.

The Department of Ecology disagreed and notified the railroad the work already performed does not meet the definition of maintenance because “the road work expanded the existing footprint into wetlands, raised the grade and relocated an existing drainage, among other changes.”

Additionally, the Department of Ecology said both the Curtin Creek and Chelatchie properties will have to be restored to pre-existing conditions but had not yet received a response from the railroad on what step would be taken to restore the properties.

The federal agencies involved could have additional requirements.

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