Union Pacific has some explaining to do
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to accurately report that Alex McDonald is the sole owner of the property in Fairview
Outlook readers with good memories will recall a story we ran in June involving an Eastern Oregon rancher, behemoth Union Pacific Railroad and some troublesome beavers.
For those who don't remember, rancher Alex McDonald of Madras owns a small piece of property in Fairview that rubs shoulders with the railroad right-of-way. McDonald and his cantankerous father, Tom McDonald, had noticed the property was flooding and they set out to find out why, leading to the discovery of a beaver dam on Fairview Creek within the boundary of the railroad right-of-way.
McDonald told an Outlook reporter that the dam had been there for several years.
After discovering the dam, the McDonalds notified the railroad, the Multnomah County Drainage District and the city of Fairview, hoping someone would come up with a permanent fix.
What started as an effort to have a beaver dam removed, has — all these months later — devolved into threats by the railroad to have the McDonalds prosecuted for trespassing. And in typical tit-for-tat fashion, the McDonalds have brought a hefty lawsuit against Union Pacific.
The trespassing threat resulted from the McDonalds' admission that they ventured onto the railroad right-of-way to get a better view of the beaver dam. It's entertaining to point out that railroad employees had been crossing the same trestle for several years with the buck-toothed critters' dam in full view, and apparently did nothing until the McDonalds brought the structure to their attention.
The McDonalds say the $2.5 million lawsuit is in response to declining property value and damages to the property itself.
Now, to this point in the story, it's likely most readers are scratching their heads, uttering a big "so what?" That's a fair point. You don't own the railroad, and you don't own the abutting property.
So why should you care?
Let's try this on for size.
It's tempting to conclude that the railroad is the hero for removing the beaver dam. The dam's gone; problem solved. Right?
Oregon's state critter, the beaver, is famous for its burrowing prowess — digging into river banks and lake shores as they build their homes. That should give cause to ponder, "Did the beavers burrow into the creek bank below the railroad trestle?"
As far as anyone knows, the extent of the Union Pacific Railroad inspection for structural damage involved a couple of guys standing on the tracks above, saying "looks good to me."
I called Todd Waldner, a risk assessment analyst for UP at its headquarters in Omaha, Neb., on Nov. 21. I wanted to ask some questions about the dam removal and the subsequent inspection, but I was quickly informed that because UP was in litigation with the McDonalds, Waldner would not be able to comment.
Instead, Waldner said he would hand off my contact information to the attorney representing UP. It's been two weeks and I haven't heard from anyone at Union Pacific.
To roll this just a little further down the line, Outlook readers would do well to remember that federal investigators pointed the finger of blame at UP for the oil train derailment that occurred June 3 in the Columbia River Gorge at Mosier. An inspection of the tracks just before the wreck had failed to detect broken bolts that led to the derailment and explosion.
Those same oil trains pass over the trestle that crosses Fairview Creek. And as far as anyone knows, nobody has checked to see if the menacing beavers had burrowed into the embankment and undermined the bridge. Such an inspection would likely involve core drilling, to make certain the earthen foundation below the tracks is intact.
On Friday of this week, Union Pacific is scheduled to make oral arguments on its motion to dismiss the complaints brought by the McDonalds.
As a newspaper, we don't much care if the McDonalds are awarded damages. That's a private matter between a landowner and a railroad company.
But we are interested in public safety. And so far, at least, Union Pacific hasn't satisfied our curiosity about what's going on below that railroad trestle. We would hate to see a repeat of the Mosier disaster in the more densely populated Fairview area, where the odds of injury or death are far greater.
So come on, UP, I'm waiting for the call with the nitty gritty on that inspection. We only want a descent explanation for why we have nothing to worry about.