TIME RUNNING OUT ON RAIL LINE AS SALVAGE GETS OK

December 17, 2001 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE A salvage company has been given approval to remove the railroad tracks from Joseph to Elgin.

However, county officials are hopeful that the removal can be delayed long enough so one more offer can be made to buy the line.

Wallowa County Commission Chairman Mike Hayward said it is his understanding that the owner of Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad has joined Wallowa and Union counties effort in seeking a second stay order filed to delay U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones of Portland from ruling on an injunction.

The lines owner, Rio Grande Railroad of Forth Worth, Texas, and Klamert Salvage Company of Montana requested an injunction to prevent Wallowa County from interfering with track removal.

In June the county required a permit before Klamert could pull up the rails. The first postponement of the hearing of that injunction expired on Friday.

It looks hopeful that the judge will grant another stay for about a week, Hayward said. That decision is expected any day.

By next week, Hayward thinks the counties will know if there will be any federal economic stimulus monies available to sweeten the pot to purchase the line.

Union County Commissioner John Howard returned Sunday from a trip to Washington D.C. to investigate the possibility of such aid.

There is still hope, Hayward said, but he feared there is a slim chance that federal monies will be made available to the counties to purchase the line.

Hayward said this could be the last hope of securing the rail corridor. Rio Grande previously rejected offers of $3 million to purchase the line from Joseph to Elgin, and $8.5 million to buy the line all the way to La Grande.

Last week, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board denied the Oregon Department of Transportations July petition to overturn the federal boards 1997 decision to allow abandonment of the line.

The board ruled that effective Dec. 23, salvage of the line can begin.

In addition, four previously imposed environmental conditions were replaced by the board with the condition that Klamert perform the salvage in accordance with its previously submitted work plan. That plan specifies that bridges and ballast will remain in place, the rail bed be roughgraded to maintain sediment control, dust be controlled, and work will be 20 feet from the river bank. If a bank is disturbed, it will be reseeded. Staging and storage is to be done away from water.

The previous conditions were that: salvage not be conducted when Chinook Salmon are hatching, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be consulted for bridge removal, fuel leakage be prevented, and Wallowa County be consulted regarding compliance with its salmon plan.

The environmental conditions modification was in response to

the state transportation departments petition asking the board to address environmental mitigating conditions.

The other three points of the petition and the boards ruling on them are as follows:

State transportation argued that abandonment authority expired because IN&P failed to file a notice of confirmation by March 1999 (one year from the date of the boards last decision in this case). The board said that rule does not apply, and no notice of consummation was required. ...

Supporters of the effort to purchase the rail line had said that circumstances changed sufficiently to support rail operations. The two Wallowa County wood processing mills could now import logs by rail, as well as ship lumber out. which could add a second shift at each mill. A grant-funded feasibility study supported the view.

In its eight-page decision, the board said no traffic has moved (or been requested) on the line ... in (more than) five years.

The transportation department asked that the board allow a filing of an offer of financial assistance (OFA) to purchase the line for some $1.84 million net, after tax payments. The board responded, There is no precedent to entertain an OFA filed 4 1/2 years after its due date, and to do so plainly would be inconsistent with congressional intent.