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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Neighbors say construction for Chelatchie Rail Yard expansion blocks stream, kills fish; company says that’s ‘incorrect’

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad is building a road as part of its efforts to expand the Chelatchie Rail Yard. Residents in the area say the road is blocking a fish-bearing stream that flows into Chelatchie Creek.
Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad is building a road as part of its efforts to expand the Chelatchie Rail Yard. Residents in the area say the road is blocking a fish-bearing stream that flows into Chelatchie Creek. (Photos by Shari Phiel/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

CHELATCHIE — Residents in the Chelatchie Bluff area live in a place many can only dream of. A quiet life with plenty of room for kids and dogs to play and pastures for horses and goats. For Brenna and Andrew Collins, a stream with fish and other aquatic wildlife meanders through their property before eventually reaching Chelatchie Creek.

But in the last few weeks, that stream had nearly dried up, leaving behind dead and dying fish. Residents in the area say it is not because of lack of rain, but the work of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad.

In late September, the railroad began building a road on property it leases from the county and on private property with permission from the landowner. The road was built over the stream with what Brenna Collins said has been “disastrous effects.”

“The lack of engineering, geological expertise, incompetence, and due diligence is astonishing,” Brenna Collins said in an Oct. 7 letter to Eric Temple, president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad.

Temple said Collins and her neighbors are “incorrect.”

“The stream she’s referring to is a seasonal creek that is dry this time of year. There’s no water there at all,” Temple said by phone Friday, adding if there’s water in the creek now, then they didn’t cut the stream off. Temple also claimed it’s not a fish-bearing stream.

Brenna Collins said it’s Temple who is incorrect. When they discovered that little water was left flowing into the stream, she said she and her neighbors first tried using a hose to keep water flowing and fish in the stream alive. At the urging of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, they caught as many fish as possible and took them to neighboring Chelatchie Creek.

“Hundreds of fish have died. Our family rescued what we were able to, but the impact of (company’s) incompetent construction is obvious and irresponsible,” Brenna Collins said in the letter.

While Clark County has approved a surface mining overlay to more than 300 acres of land in the Chelatchie Bluff area, mining operations have not been approved yet. But Temple says it’s only a matter of time and the work being done now will serve future mining operation.

“The mine … went through a quasi-judicial process, the growth management hearings board. The ruling of the hearings board was essentially that the probability that the mine was going to happen was virtually certain,” Temple said by phone Friday.

In addition to the road, the railroad’s yard will also be expanded.

“To load that quantity of rock, we need some working space. The Chelatchie yard is very landlocked,” Temple said. “It’s basically two tracks. It’s very limited work space, really no area to handle loading that quantity of rock that the surface mine will create.”

Temple said it’s going to take time to build the facilities needed to service the mine when it opens, so the railroad is starting work now to be ready on “day one.”

Before mining operations can begin, an environmental impact analysis must be completed. In April, the county council reversed its findings for two rezoning requests, one in the Chelatchie Bluff Mineral Lands and the other at Cardai Hill Rock Quarry near Woodland. The county originally ruled the projects would not have significant environmental impacts.

The reversal came after a March 22 ruling by the state Growth Management Hearings Board that found the county had “failed to conduct an adequate State Environmental Policy Act analysis and improperly chose to defer a more in-depth review of impacts of the surface mining overlay until the project stage, despite the higher level of detail provided by the applicant.”

Since withdrawing its findings, the county has issued new findings for both proposals and is moving forward with full environmental reviews.

David McDonald, a Ridgefield attorney who has represented Friends of Clark County when it appealed the county’s approval of the surface mining overlay, said approving the mine would be another example of the county’s bad planning decisions.

“The county allows development in areas where they know it will create conflict, and then when the conflict comes, they say ‘too bad.’ It happened with Knife River just recently, and it happened with Livingston Mountain,” McDonald said. “Now they’re doing it with the railroad. They continue to make the same errors in land use planning.”

The county may own some of the land where the road work is being done, but it may not be able to intercede. Temple claims the road project doesn’t need approval from the county or state.

“Essentially, there are no permits required. We’ve been permitted by Congress and the Surface Transportation Board of the United States as exclusive jurisdiction over any railroad construction projects,” Temple said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Ecology will be visiting the site later this week to assess the impacts of the railroad work.