Union Pacific Railroad will pay $800,000 to settle a government lawsuit over seven train derailments that created environmental hazards by spilling oil and other pollutants into Colorado and Utah waterways over the past decade.
The settlement, filed Thursday in Denver's U.S. District Court, also requires the Omaha, Neb.,-based railway giant to take measures to avert environmental damage in the future.
"This agreement will result in increased protection from future derailments and spills that endanger human health and the environment," said Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources at the Department of Justice. "We are committed to making certain that the railroad industry complies with environmental laws."
The lawsuit was filed in 1997 in behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency naming the Southern Pacific Transportation Co. and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Co., two companies that merged with Union Pacific in 1998. In the latest amended version last year, the EPA alleged the Union Pacific exhibited "gross negligence" in a total of eight chemical and oil spills between 1992 and 1998, seven caused by derailments, that were determined to have been "harmful to the public health or welfare or the environment."
Overall, the derailments, caused by rock slides or improper train handling, spilled more than 14,000 gallons of fuel, 5,000 tons of taconite, and 800,000 pounds of sulfuric acid.
The last incident cited occurred in 1998, when a Union Pacific locomotive derailed in a company rail yard in Provo, rupturing a fuel tank and spilling at least 1,200 gallons of diesel fuel into a canal that empties into Utah Lake.
Utah state water-quality regulators fined Union Pacific $8,000 for that spill, but the EPA decided to seek additional penalties under the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits the discharge of oil and hazardous substances into the nation's waterways.
Two other spills in Utah were a 1992 D&RGW spill of diesel into Spanish Fork Canyon and a Southern Pacific diesel spill into the Ogden River in 1993.
Justice department spokeswoman Christine Romano said the amount in the settlement will be deposited in the government's general fund. Nevertheless, she pointed out that Union Pacific's cleanup efforts after each spill "has been completed to the satisfaction of federal officials."
Some cleanup efforts, including the one near Utah Lake, are "still under way, which is not to say it remains a threat to public health," Romano said. "But sometimes oil is hard to clean completely."
In settling the case out of court, the government took into account the severity of the spills and the company's approach to cleanup efforts and future prevention.
The settlement also requires Union Pacific, among other things, to equip future locomotives with fuel tanks that meet new industry standards for "crash-worthiness," which "substantially reduce the likelihood that fuel would spill in the event of a rupture," Romano said.
Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley did not return a call by press time Friday.