Union Pacific Railroad Co. is planning to excavate 36,000 tons of soil from contaminated land along Ashland's railroad tracks and haul the material away by train.
Work to build a temporary track into the site could begin this winter, the Ashland City Council learned during its Monday study session. Excavation could stretch into spring 2014, according to a remediation plan.
The 20-acre parcel that parallels A Street was used from 1886 to 1986 for railroad servicing and repairs and is contaminated with lead, arsenic and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.
Hydrocarbons often result from petroleum processing or combustion and can be highly carcinogenic at low levels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Union Pacific is voluntarily undertaking the cleanup project with the help of Colorado-based CH2M HILL.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing the project.
The city has little control over the cleanup, except that Union Pacific will have to secure a city construction and excavation permit.
Union Pacific proposed a cleanup in 2006, but it was met with stiff community resistance, especially over plans to haul away contaminated dirt by truck.
"The public at that time didn't want the truck traffic," said Gary Honeyman, environmental site remediation manager for Union Pacific.
The City Council asked that any future cleanup use rail cars to carry away contaminated soil.
Extra rail cars will be staged in Medford while about a dozen will be on the site in Ashland for loading, Honeyman estimated.
A train will take batches of loaded cars to a disposal site in Utah, he said.
CH2M HILL Senior Manager Mark Ochsner estimated about 20 to 40 truckloads of clean fill dirt will have to be hauled in by truck. The land will then be graded.
Ashland Management Analyst Ann Seltzer said the project is likely to concern neighbors because of noise, both from construction of the temporary rail spur and excavation into 2014.
Union Pacific's contractor likely will work five to six days per week from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. when doing excavation and loading, according to the plan. Water trucks on site will control dust.
The land must be cleaned to residential standards before it can be developed, according to a condition the city imposed in 2000 before granting planning approval for the site to be divided into lots.
"We're cleaning the entire site to residential level," Ochsner said.
That doesn't guarantee that every square inch of land will be free of contaminated soil, however, said DEQ Hydrogeologist Geoffrey Brown.
DEQ will do extensive sampling, but could miss a contaminated spot or two, he said.
"You don't ever get 100 percent certainty. There's always a chance there's some contamination left," Brown said.
Union Pacific will have to negotiate with any future developer about who retains liability if contaminated soil is found when someone starts to build there, Brown said.
The land is zoned for commercial buildings plus housing.
Mayor John Stromberg said Ashlanders will want to know that the land is safe after the cleanup.
"People need to be completely confident. They'll want to plant vegetable gardens," he said.
Brown said the land will be safe for gardens and kids playing in backyards after the cleanup.
Honeyman said Union Pacific is gradually cleaning up properties in its portfolio and selling them off, but it doesn't have any imminent deals for the Ashland site. It would like to sell the property as one piece, if possible.
"We've talked to a couple developers and nothing's panned out yet," he said.
While city officials and neighbors are likely to have many questions and concerns as the project moves forward, City Councilor Dennis Slattery said it could be beneficial.
"I don't want to lose sight of the fact that once you're done, the earth down there is going to be a lot better off than it is now," Slattery said.
For more details on the cleanup plan, visit http://www.ashland.or.us/Page.asp?NavID=15125.
Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.