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Three weeks later, derailment still not cleaned up

Nearly three weeks after a train derailed outside of Montesano, and the crushed grain cars are still lying in ditches — and the smell is getting worse.

State and county officials say it could be another week to 10 days before the derailed cars are totally cleaned up. Crews were on scene Wednesday to start to deal with it.

But questions are emerging regarding if the derailment had happened in an urban area if the neighbors would be treated the same way.

The derailment happened on May 15 — and a cause is still under investigation, according to railroad spokesman Michael Williams with Genesee & Wyoming. The railroad worked fast to get its own rail line back in order to resume operations days later. However, the road has been closed since the derailment happened.

After two weeks, a crew removed the broken rail on May 27. A couple of days later, Williams said the wheels, side frames and other components — springs/bearing adapters, etc. — from the overturned cars were removed from the site.

There wasn’t a smell for the first week or so. But, by the second week — after rain and sun and rain again — a kind of fermenting process had begun. And the smell has just been getting worse as the days go by.

Neighbors have started to complain to the county and The Vidette, wondering what was going on.

“How on earth are the people supposed to be able to live when they can barely even go outside?” County Commissioner Frank Gordon said. “I’ve been out there and the smell makes me gag.”

Gordon has been pushing county road officials to find out what’s going on.

“This isn’t fair to the neighbors or the county to just let this go on like this,” Gordon said.

On May 27, county deputies pursued a man on a stolen motorcycle on a route that took them right past the derailed cars at speeds up to 100 mph. The road may be closed, but they all went around it.

Gordon notes that the community is lucky no one crashed into one of the derailed cars, which abuts the road.

The Vidette reached out to officials with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission on Friday, trying to figure out what was going on. The state commission has regulatory authority over the rail crossing. Kathy Hunter, the deputy assistant director for transportation safety, said that the railroad would begin unloading and removing the rail cars earlier this week and be done in the next seven to 10 days.

The hope was that the rail car closest to the road would be removed first. Hunter says that once that car is removed, the road would officially re-open.

“PS&P, the county and the Utilities and Transportation Commission agreed to err on the side of safety and leave the road closed signs in place until the rail car closest to the road is removed because of the impact to sight distance and the clear zone.”

County Road Engineer Russ Esses says that plan makes sense to him. Once the road is reopened, the county would require flaggers on the road before any more work is done.

Williams, the railroad spokesman, said he thought the crossing has been open to vehicle traffic since the derailment. Told about the “road closed” signs, Williams noted the railroad never asked for the roads to be closed.

Williams notes that no hazardous material is present.

“It’s animal feed and biodegradable — and there’s no danger to the public,” Williams said.

The real issue is that the railroad has been having difficulty finding some place to take the spilled grain that is fermenting. The railroad thought it had found a place, but over the weekend, Williams said the location that was going to take the soymeal canceled, so the railroad is now working to find a new place to take it.

“The delay has been in finding a home for the grain, and we apologize for the inconvenience,” Williams said.

The railroad has been dealing with four derailments in a three-week time period. The other derailment sites appear to be cleaned up.

Hunter says that state officials have been trying to be patient with the railroad.

“They have a lot of things going on now,” Hunter said. “Their resources are impacts by the number of incidents.”