Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Data confirms (again) high concentrations of toxic railyard contaminants

 Newly released measurements of contaminants in soil and groundwater samples taken from Lafayette’s abandoned downtown railyard again confirm railyard contamination and further add to our concerns (Bray, 2021; Goodell, 2022). These measurements show that: 

  • There are high concentrations of toxic contaminants in the soil and water beneath the downtown Lafayette abandoned railyard. 

  • Contamination has spread down into the Chicot aquifer.

  • High contaminant concentrations were measured up to the railyard property boundary.

  • It is reasonable to assume that during the past century contamination has flowed past the railyard boundary and is impacting neighbors’ health and reducing the uses and value of their property.

These new measurements clearly show that renewed action by state LDEQ and US EPA is not only justified, but essential to limit further damage to the Chicot drinking water aquifer, to limit damage to property bordering the railyard, and to protect citizens on property near the railyard from exposure to toxic contaminants. Sampling has never been performed under neighboring homes, businesses, and public places just beyond the railyard property boundary.

The newly available measurements of railyard toxic contaminants were made available in a live update, press release, and court filing on January 4, 2022, by attorney Bill Goodell (2022), and in a related report by consulting geologist Brent Bray (2021). Goodell is prosecuting a public environmental  lawsuit to force the Union Pacific Railroad Company to conduct a comprehensive vertical and horizontal assessment and to remediate soil and groundwater so that the site meets all regulatory cleanup standards in lieu of state and federal agencies who have failed to exercise their authority to do so despite actual notice of the site contaminant levels and conditions. This new groundwater sampling was initiated by the Louisiana DOTD as they performed a decades-late site assessment on land proposed for the Lafayette I-49 Connector. 

The conclusions listed above are clear from the data despite the very limited sampling that was performed. The sampling was limited to a very small number of test borings, the sampling sites were spread over only a portion of the abandoned railyard, and no samples were drawn outside of the historic railroad property boundary. Additionally, only a limited number of contaminants were tested for. Despite these limitations, Bray’s report was able to estimate the horizontal spread of total petroleum hydrocarbons, TPH, over a portion of the former railyard property (Figure 1).

Contamination of the railyard property occurred over more than six decades. Our old railyard in downtown Lafayette serviced trains on the heavily trafficked line from Houston to New Orleans from the 1890’s until it was abandoned in the 1960’s. In 1880, before the rail line came to Lafayette, Lafayette’s  population was 817; by 1900 an influx of rail workers and their families along with families of workers in associated businesses swelled the population to 3000. For decades the railyard was our major employer. This facility provided many rail services beyond switching railcars. Lafayette was the divisional rail office. The railyard included a roundhouse, engine repair shop, boiler cleaning shed, machine shop, railcar repair shop, brake shop, lumber building with outdoor lumber piles, auto and truck repair shops, grease house, laundry, hotel, passenger and freight terminals, dynamite shed, blacksmith shop, and a power house. There was also at least one gasoline storage tank in the yard, and coal storage. Stock pens held animals for shipment. An oil/water separator and crude oil storage tank were provided for oil awaiting shipment. Fuel tanks stored heavy bottom oil for the original steam trains, and later there were tanks for the diesel fuel as engines transitioned to this newer technology. Both steam and diesel engines were fueled through overhead fuel lines that ran along the tracks. 

It is not surprising that our railyard, like many others around the world, was contaminated with spilled and leaked fuels, spilled and dumped machine cleaning solvents, and wood preservative. As at other old rail sites like ours, we have soil contamination from asbestos (from steam train boilers), and heavy metals including arsenic (herbicide/pesticide), mercury (steam manometers), and lead (batteries). In many other former railyards these hazards have been or are now being cleaned-up or extensively mitigated - but not ours. This is not acceptable.    

To sum up, newly available information confirms what was already known, that Lafayette’s abandoned railyard downtown is heavily contaminated. Measurements found contamination at levels far exceeding relevant LDEQ criteria. This contamination has flowed into our underlying drinking water aquifer, and has probably spread under neighboring residential, commercial, and public properties.

Now, we ask again that our local, state, and federal leaders act to safeguard the health and property of our citizens. 

For more information: 

  • Follow this link to attorney Bill Goodell’s January 4, 2022, press release. 

  • Geologist Brent Bray’s report dated March 18, 2021, which was cited in that press release is included in the amending petition filed  January 4, 2022. Mr. Bray’s report may be requested by emailing Erika Boehmer, Burns Charest LLP, eboehmer@burnscharest.com.  

Figure 1: Inside the white border, total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) spread is estimated from the new measurements. This is overlaid on an aerial view of the surrounding community.