Off the Rails: The Unsafe DoD Bomb Trains of Red Rock Biofuels
Under contracts for the Department of Defense, Federal Express and Southwest Airlines, Red Rock Biofuels LLC will be transporting highly volatile jet fuel via an Oregon county owned railway that had 96 Federal Rail Violations in 2016 and is currently in Federal Court with its lessee regarding maintenance of the dilapidated, unsafe, track.
Red Rock has received over $100 million dollars in federal, state and local subsidies to build a forest-to-biofuels facility in Lakeview. Using “renewable” subsidies, it will annually consume 300,000 tons of forest biomass from three state and create 15 million gallons of biofuel. However, biofuel was a ruse only to gain subsidies, as the bait and switch is really about the eventual perpetual use of Ruby Pipeline (root of the Trump renewed Jordan Cove/Pacific Connector) fracked natural gas to create jet fuel.
The project has many adverse impacts that were not addressed in the DoD Environmental Assessment, and I have documented the many air quality, forest supply assessment, indigenous sovereignty/cultural, and rail related issues through several pieces in Counterpunch and Medium.
DoD stated that rail issues were beyond the scope of their assessment.
Lake Railway, once known as the Nevada California Oregon Railroad, is owned by Lake County, Oregon and leased to Frontier Rail of Portland. The line includes leased Union Pacific track. The County owned line runs along the east shore of 26 mile long Goose Lake and then the North Fork of the Pit River, a tributary of the Sacramento, literally 50 yards from the front doors and through the XL Reservation of the Pit River Tribe with who DoD has no Tribal agreement. It continues south through Altruas, Modoc County seat (population 2,500) and then west to Canby, where the Union Pacific leased line begins shortly after, finally heading north to re-enter Oregon and end in Klamath Falls. A total of 50 miles are in Oregon and 60 in California.
The line is over 100 years old and has numerous water crossings with many bridges in violation of Federal Rail Administration regulation. It has a history of derailments due to track condition and has been consistently operating on shoestring budget with few capital improvements, dependent upon Oregon state and federal funding. Says Frontier Rail in their ongoing legal suit against Lake County:
In 2016, the Lake Railway received 96 FRA violations, 33 deficiency notices, and was fined almost $100,000. 42% of all FRA violations in the entire State of California (88 of 208) involved the substandard Lake Railway. The Oregon segment had 8 track violations, 13 track deficiencies, and 23 locomotive deficiencies. Simply and regardless of the “substantial amounts” of money the State of Oregon has poured into it, Lake County and Frontier operate an unsafe line.
While these regulatory agency inspection reports should be readily available to the public, they are not, as both Oregon and California rail safety inspection reports are submitted to the FRA that requires the public to go through the Freedom of Information Act process to get them. As such, I do not have information regarding specific bridge and track issues beyond public statements made by County and Frontier Officials, the State of California Public Utilities Commission Rail Safety Legislative Report for 2016, and court documents submitted as part of the ongoing litigation over track maintenance between Lake County and Frontier regarding the County termination of their lease.
The lease disagreement stems from who is responsible for capital improvements on the line and how Connect Oregon grants should be administered, paid out, making one wonder if there are grant shenanigans on either side. Further, it is a disagreement over Frontier’s right to increase rates to cover their costs without County input. Their rate increase resulted in the loss of their only major shippers, Collins Forest Products, a timber mill, and Cornerstone Products, a perlite factory. Each of these shippers have since terminated their contracts with Frontier, having found that it is cheaper to transport their products via trucks to Klamath Falls and be placed on trains, bypassing Lake Rail altogether.
This dispute leaves Lake Rail’s only customer the yet to be built Red Rock Biofuels who depended upon a viable, safe, rail line of which the DoD EA did not negligently address. The lease dispute is likely to last through the summer and Lake County is unlikely to get a different lease holder in place by the end of the year, much less initiate and complete repairs by the end of 2018. At present, both Lake County and Frontier Rail are in Federal Court hashing out their differences over the lease, and Frontier continues to operate under federal law even though their lease has been terminated. It is unlikely that Frontier will continue to operate the line after judicial review and during a critical period for Red Rock, as Red rock intends on breaking ground by the end of the summer. They will do so fully knowing that their tankers will be getting to market on an unsafe rail line.
So, what are Red Rock, DoD, Lake County, and State/Federal Officials to do?
What Oregon State and Federal officials are already doing is working on more welfare capitalism.
While there is a continuing dispute over maintance and funding, Red Rock/l via Lake County has applied for and is likely to receive a $5 million Connect Oregon grant for Lake Railway. Governor Kate Brown’s office has been working closely with both County and company officials promoting the project’s bacon in spite of possible past misuse of funds.
Further, Representative Greg Walden, as per Commissioner Dan Shoun, is now interested in working with Red Rock executives to obtain funding for the line, likely to be budgeted this session and given to DoD as a pass through like the initial $75 million. In any case, Shoun and Commissioner Brad Winters indicated that as of July 19, 2017 Red Rock is shovel ready.
In my view, it is likely that Red Rock is faced with the challenge of purchasing and running the line themselves, as they have already invested millions in planning, compliance, and purchasing of equipment.
As of July 13, they received the final package of BizOregon monies, a total of over $100 million in federal, state and local welfare capitalism to date. Their financing now fully in order and ready to break ground, it appears they have yet another hurdle jump.
The real question is: should Red Rock Biofuels be able to begin construction of a facility that will ship hazardous cargo on what is currently a disputed, unsafe, rail line?
The answer is: of course not.
Although the rail line is deemed unsafe with 96 violations, Red Rock will proceed constructing a facility that will produce 15 million gallons and 1000 water polluting tanker bombs of jet and others hazardous fuels a year. They will proceed because there is not a single Green organization willing to litigate the project in Federal court to stop work and demand an Environmental Impact Statement be prepared for the project.
Not Bill McKibben’s 350.org, Sierra Club, or the Center for Biological Diversity. Not the Wilderness Society nor OregonWild! Not EarthJustice, National Resources Defense Council or the Western Environmental Law Center. Not any Green group from Oregon, California, New York or Washington, D.C.
On the verge of malfeasance, beyond air, forests, indigenous sovereignty and Mni Wiconi, smooth talking environmental Greens and their organizations are fully prepared to let bomb trains run off the rails, their rhetoric against major climate busting perpetrators — like the DoD, Southwest Air, FedEx — being little but propaganda for fundraising campaigns.
Or, real climate action is reserved only for bomb trains in their own urban backyards.