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Nostalgia & History > Arsenic and Old Railyards

Date: 01/02/08 11:02
Arsenic and Old Railyards
Author: fredkharrison

Learning that the Ashland Yard on the Siskiyou Line, used by the Espee for locomotive maintenance and refueling for 100 years, had unhealthy levels of arsenic, I was interested to know more about how it got there in the first place and what was delaying its clean up. This kind of contamination, by the way, is not unique to this railyard or to the Espee, but very common throughout the United States. Here is what I found out:

"The most commonly reported contamination along rail lines includes metals, pesticides (such as lead arsenate), and constituents of oil or fuel (petroleum products). These chemicals have been associated with normal railroad operations and are likely to be found anywhere along the line. For example, it would not be uncommon to find arsenic (up to ten times natural background levels) present in the soil along a right-of-way from old railroad ties dipped in an arsenic solution, arsenic weed-control sprays, and arsenic-laced slag used as railroad bed fill . Lubricating oil and diesel that dripped from the trains are likely sources of the petroleum product found along the lines. Other sources of contaminants associated with historic railroad operation may include coal ash from engines, creosote from ties, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (“PAHs”) from the diesel exhaust."


"The Union Pacific Railroad - Ashland site (UPRRAshland) is a former rail yard located near downtown Ashland, Oregon. The site covers approximately 20 acres located immediately north of the active railroad line bordering A Street. The UPRR-Ashland site operated as a locomotive maintenance and refueling station from 1887 until 1986. Numerous structures once occupied the rail yard, including a hotel/passenger station, a freight station, a car repair shed, a locomotive turntable and roundhouse, a large steel oil tank, and many smaller structures and tanks. The majority of the site is currently vacant. The only remaining structures are an oil/water separator and two associated ponds, which are fenced, and a number of building and facility foundations located at or below the existing site grade. The site has been the focus of environmental investigations since the early 1990s. Initial site observations identified the presence of stained soil and petroleum-impacted groundwater and surface water. In 1991 and 1992, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company (SPTCo), the previous owner of the property, conducted a series of environmental site assessments that included some preliminary sampling in order to evaluate contaminant issues. They concluded that the primary contaminants present at the site are petroleum, petroleum-related chemicals, lead and arsenic. These assessments formed the basis for the current investigations."

Source: http://www.deq.state.or.us/lq/cu/wr/uprrashland/UPRRAshlandFactSheet.pdf

For DEQ maps, go here:

1940's aerial view:

Apparently the City of Ashland has halted Union Pacific's attempts to clean up this hazardous site. They did not want UP to use trucks to remove the contaminated soil due to the fear of hazardous dust being created in the transport.

See Mayor of Ashland's Letter to the Oregon DEQ here:

Fred Harrison
Central Point, OR

Date: 01/02/08 13:51
Re: Arsenic and Old Railyards
Author: odub

Thanks for digging into this. Looks like they're going to have to go down 10 feet in a number of areas. Interesting that the arsenic is only in the first foot (usually less) of soil.

I think we often ignore the fact that, even as occasional by-standers, we may be exposing ourselves to chemicals that may be toxic. Employees are exposing themselves even more. Railroads used to spray significant quantities of herbicides along thousands of miles of rights-of-way. Most former (and current) locomotive and car repair sites have significant levels of hazardous materials in the soil. Creosote itself is a pretty decent hazardous material. Then there is the emissions, especially from older diesel locomotives (the very interesting epidemiological study done in Roseville a couple years ago showed risks to residents as well as railroaders).

And let's not forget the days when the passenger train ruled, dumping bio-waste from hither to yon (didn't you always hate that bit of splash every so often standing next to a pre-self-contained passenger car as it sped by you?).

Don Hall
Yreka, CA

Date: 01/02/08 15:36
Re: Arsenic and Old Railyards
Author: Betsy

Or, if there was major maintenance facilities, solvents are typically found as well. In the case of the former SP Sacramento General Shops, the groundwater contaminant plume extends under a fairly large portion of downtown Sacramento.

Elizabeth Allen

Date: 01/02/08 18:20
Re: Arsenic and Old Railyards
Author: spnudge

After working as a Locomotive Engineer in SF, Bayshore, San Jose, Wat Jct, SLO, Lompoc, Surf,SBA, LA, Oakland, Roseville, Sacramento, Dunsmuir, Ashland, Klamath Falls, Alturas, Wendel, Medford, Eugene, Albany, Salem, Brooklyn, Albina, Lake Yard and Vancouver.

I think I have seen a lot of "Spill Areas" from Bunker "C" in the steam days to Diesel in that time. We didn't know then, what we know now but are paying the price. Some of the areas are blown out of shape but that's the way it goes. The place that impressed me most was Ashland in the 80s.

It had two tracks with the rails set up off the concrete so the area could be hosed down. There was sand, water and fuel available by hoses hanging down and the place was always spotless. Every time the 9 plus units would go west on the SLW, the roundhouse would hose everything down and the water would go into a collection tank where it was cleaned and picked up for disposal. It is the only place I can think of where you could wear your street shoes and not get them ruined by oily sand, and crater grease.


Date: 01/03/08 06:37
Re: Arsenic and Old Railyards
Author: wabash2800

Arsenic is in potatoes and some kinds of sea food naturally though I don't think you can eat enough in one sitting to hurt you.

Date: 01/03/08 08:21
Re: Arsenic and Old Railyards
Author: fredkharrison

wabash2800 Wrote: Arsenic is in potatoes and some kinds of sea food
naturally though I don't think you can eat enough in one sitting to hurt you.

Reply: Arsenic (As) is an element found in the earth’s crust. It has no smell or taste but can be silver-gray or yellow in color. Arsenic is a solid and can dissolve in water. It also has two chemical forms, organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is relatively non-toxic and occurs in ocean fish and seafood. Inorganic arsenic is toxic and can be found in water, bedrock, sand and gravel.

"Organic arsenic of a nontoxic variety is present in shellfish and saltwater fish, such as haddock or cod. The arsenobetaine and arsenocholine in seafood are excreted completely in the urine within 1-2 days. The urine of a person consuming seafood within 1-2 days of testing is likely to contain 50-2000 mcg of arsenic. Actual arsenic toxicity is characterized by the excretion of 500-50,000 mcg/day."
Source: http://www.emedicine.com/neuro/topic20.htm

Arsenic in Potatoes
Sodium arsenite has been used to kill potato vines before potato harvest. Arsenic of lead has historically been used on potato foliage to kill potato bugs. Root crops can accumlate arsenic, but of more concern are numerous other contaminents and pesticides as well. I would definitely advise you not to grow potatoes and other root crops in suspect soils and to buy organic potatoes.

Arsenic in drinking water is the major concern to health risk.

Source: http://www.asmalldoseof.org/toxicology/arsenic.php
Use: wood preservative, pesticides, semiconductor manufacturing
Source: coal combustion, drinking water, environment, medical drug, seafood
Recommended daily intake: none (not essential)
Absorption: inhalation, intestine - inorganic high, organic low, skin
Sensitive individuals: children
Toxicity/symptoms: Peripheral nervous system (tingling in hands in feet), skin cancer (ingestion), lung cancer (inhalation); Hyperpigmentation (keratosis) of palms and soles; vascular complications
Regulatory facts: EPA - Drinking water 10 µg/L (0.01 ppm)
EPA - RfD - 0.3 µg/kg/day
OSHA - Workplace air 10 µg/m3
ATSDR - MRL - 0.3 µg/kg/day
General facts: long history of use as medicine and poison
Environmental: global environmental contaminate, bioaccumulates in fish and shellfish (mostly in a form that is not harmful)
Recommendations: avoid, do not use arsenic treated lumber, test drinking water

Fred Harrison
Central Point, OR

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