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County denies track expansion near Oregon train derailment

An Oregon county has tentatively denied Union Pacific Railroad's plan to expand tracks along the Columbia River Gorge where an oil train derailed in June.

Wasco County commissioners voted Wednesday to reverse a decision by the county's planning commission and tentatively deny the railroad's application to add four miles of a second mainline to existing tracks in and around Mosier, Oregon.

A final vote is expected Thursday once application documents are updated, commission chair Rod Runyon said Friday.

Union Pacific had sought a permit for the double track project last year, but the June 3 train wreck in the tiny Oregon town sparked a massive fire and renewed concerns about the safety of oil trains rolling through the region.

Federal investigators in a preliminary report issued in late June blamed the derailment on Union Pacific for failing to properly maintain its track.

Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said Friday the project is designed to increase efficiency through a bottleneck area and reduce the number of trains idling in Mosier and other Gorge communities.

"We plan to continue working with the community to understand its concerns and address them moving forward," he wrote in an email. He did not immediately answer a question about whether the railroad plans to appeal.

The railroad has said that the double track would allow trains to pass each other without stopping and isn't about increasing train traffic but improving efficiency.

Last month, the Yakama Nation appealed county planners' approval, saying the project violated tribal treaty rights. The tribe said the expansion would increase train traffic along the Columbia River and interfere with tribal members' ability to access fishing sites that lie alongside those train tracks.

The tribe argued that more train traffic and the potential for oil spills threaten cultural resources.

Runyon said he and the other two county commissioners diligently listened to facts presented during a five-hour hearing on Wednesday.

"It was not a flippant decision for sure," he said. "We take very seriously what we do."

He expected any decision would be appealed.

Conservation groups cheered the decision. Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Riverkeeper and Physicians for Social Responsibility had also appealed the initial permit approval. Much of the tracks would run through the Gorge's National Scenic Area.

"The Planning Commission ignored tribal treaty concerns, environmental and scenic impacts on the Gorge, objections from the City of Mosier, and even the concerns raised by their own staff when they granted the permit last month," Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge said in a statement.

Union Pacific had also appealed that September approval, challenging conditions placed on it by planners.

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