Environment, Emergency Response, Business + Industry, North America, United States
The Nature-Friendly Way to Restore Business
Recovering a Railroad After a Mudslide
Passengers on Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlight train enjoy breathtaking scenes of snow-covered peaks and lush forests as they journey through the rugged Cascade Mountain Range. Sharing this route are 15 daily freight trains, vital to carrying goods from California to the Pacific Northwest. All of this came to a sudden halt on January 19, 2008, as a giant mudslide buried Union Pacific Railroad’s Interstate 5 rail corridor in remote western Oregon.
Union Pacific faced a natural disaster of huge proportion … the project’s greatest success was allowing them to recover compliantly from this catastrophe without stopping or slowing the process.
Known as the Frazier Slide, the natural disaster moved a million tons of mud, boulders, and debris, as well as 660,000 board feet of timber down Coyote Mountain, severing 1,500 feet of mainline track. Union Pacific assembled an army of contractors and construction equipment to quickly reopen the route, and called upon CDM Smith for permitting and engineering to help recover from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the railroad in modern times.
Responding to a Remote Challenge
Time was of the essence and CDM Smith’s previous permitting and restoration work for Union Pacific allowed the project team to assess and coordinate—practically overnight—necessary permits. These included an emergency National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System allowance for construction activities, other federal and state stormwater and construction permits, and emergency response exemptions. Since the route passes through Willamette National Forest, CDM Smith worked with the U.S. Forest Service to grant Union Pacific the immediate use of 50 miles of Forest Service roads, quarries, and debris disposal sites—required due to the slide’s magnitude.
Cody Lechleitner, CDM Smith site manager, collaborated with Union Pacific, permitting agencies, and the site’s hundreds of workers to establish project communication and understanding, as well as acceptable construction guidelines that would achieve stormwater regulatory compliance on an aggressive schedule. “We were an essential part of the project’s overall engineering, integrating permit compliance, temporary and permanent stormwater controls, geotechnical stability and railroad infrastructure into one design,” explains Lechleitner.
CDM Smith’s onsite compliance assistance, a stormwater pollution prevention program, and daily inspections helped reduce the risk of permit violations. “Our experience with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was instrumental in quickly building trust and credibility for the overall water management program,” states Brian Antonioli, CDM Smith project manager. Deb Shafer, Union Pacific general director, maintenance of way–environmental engineering, also attributes project compliance to CDM Smith’s experience with Union Pacific’s ongoing emergency response in Nevada. “CDM Smith responded literally overnight by mobilizing staff from multiple offices on the Nevada project. Their quick response helped get the Frazier project started on the right track.”
“Union Pacific faced a natural disaster of huge proportion. Fixing it quickly and without environmental or compliance issues was important,” emphasizes Martin Carlson, CDM Smith associate and project director. “From my perspective, the project’s greatest success was allowing them to recover compliantly from this catastrophe without stopping or slowing the process.” In total, 200 workers using more than 150 pieces of equipment performed a complex symphony of repairs to restore train traffic quickly and safely within 3.5 months.
Approaching Reclamation Naturally
Following the corridor’s reopening, CDM Smith transitioned from emergency response to reclamation. With winter approaching, focus was on stabilizing and closing the site’s roads, borrow sites and fill areas containing thousands of cubic yards of excavated material saturated with 32 inches of spring precipitation. Wet soil and debris were drained and dried, and major stormwater control features, such as rock-lined channels and sedimentation basins, were installed to handle runoff.
Other nature-friendly restorative efforts included mixing the mulch of small trees with soil for added erosion resistance, natural site grading and contouring, and re-vegetating nearly 20 acres. “Erosion is expected after the first winter following construction, but there has been virtually no erosion damage and very little post-construction repairs needed. That’s phenomenal given the magnitude of the problem,” Carlson notes proudly.
Reaching out to Elk, Trout and the Public
Responsiveness and sound reclamation practices were visible in other ways. Some areas were restored with special grass seed mixtures to support long-term wildlife and elk habitats. The project also safeguarded Salt Creek, a pristine forest stream and popular trout fishery that flows just below the site. While the initial slide dumped mud and debris into the creek, CDM Smith’s stormwater management and construction practices helped prevent additional restoration-related sediment discharges.
“Managing public and regulatory perception of the project was crucial,” says Lechleitner, who worked with Union Pacific and Forest Service staff to inform the public and field questions. “Regularly, on behalf of the client, I would update the Forest Service on the project’s status and next phases, and what was being done to reclaim the site and protect the surrounding environment.” Adds Shafer, “CDM Smith was the face of Union Pacific, coordinating information transfer between agencies, our management and site construction staff in a very fluid and challenging situation.”