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Crumbled Confidence: A Troubling Look at Railroad Bridges in Idaho

"We are asking for routine and systematic inspections to ensure that the bridges can bear the loads of these trains."

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Buck Ryan hiked down embankments, scrambled across scree fields and spent a lot of time looking up at railroad bridges in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

He took notes on the cracks spreading through concrete pilings, rust and corrosion of metal frameworks, broken supports, exposed spikes, rotting wood and makeshift repairs.

He photographed 25 bridges and submitted them to the Waterkeepers Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group with more than 250 member chapters worldwide. Ryan is one of them—"the first Snake River Waterkeeper," he said.

When he's not traveling across the Snake River Basin testing water and inspecting bridges, Ryan is an attorney who works with environmental groups like Advocates for the West.

The Waterkeepers Alliance collected information on railroad bridges from across the United States and released a report with ForestEthics in November called Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains.

The report identifies deterioration in 46 percent of bridges inspected in 15 states. Overall, 250 bridges were inspected, 114 of which were found to have crumbling infrastructure.

"I'm not a professional, but I can look at a bridge and see a support that's supposed to be in a riverbed that has the bottom corner missing on it," Ryan said. "A lot of these bridges are ancient. I would see these little placards and I would clean them off and a lot of them would say 1906, 1908, 1910. It looked like not a lot had been done to them since then."

This raises concern for the Waterkeepers because of a sharp increase in train traffic since 2008, especially with the transportation of crude oil. According to the report, oil train traffic increased from 9,500 tank cars in 2008 to 493,000 tank cars in 2014—a more than 50-fold increase.

Crude oil is a risky material to transport because of its combustibility, as well as the environmental devastation caused by an oil spill. Most recently, in July 2013, an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying nearly half of the downtown area.

Despite that and other train derailments, the report argues there isn't enough federal oversight to ensure railroad bridges that cross important waterways are properly inspected and held to high safety standards.

"We are asking for routine and systematic inspections to ensure that the bridges can bear the loads of these trains because they are heavy railcars," Ryan said. "This is certainly not the use they were built for in the early 1900s."

Union Pacific Railroad Company, which owns a major railroad running parallel to I-84 through much of southern Idaho and the Snake River Basin, is quick to reassure inspections happen regularly.

"We believe that Union Pacific bridges are safe for the freight traffic they carry," said Francisco Castillo, Jr., Union Pacific director of Corporate Relations and Media for the West. "Rust doesn't mean a bridge is structurally deficient. I want to make that very clear."

In Idaho, UP employs 11 bridge safety professionals who inspect bridges along the railroad twice annually. In 2014, UP sent 141,000 carloads of crude oil through Idaho—about 4 percent of its business in the state.

The railroad company inspects and operates its own bridges, but the Federal Railroad Administration can audit its inspections anytime. Since 2013, it conducted 800 field audits out of 100,000 bridges nationwide.

In September, FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg wrote to railroad companies urging them to be more cooperative and transparent with citizens concerned over bridge safety.

"Many of the nation's railroad bridges are more than 100 years old. More and more bridges are showing visible signs of superficial deterioration," the letter stated. "These signs, along with increased tonnage and traffic on the country's rail system in recent years, have led to concerns about the structural integrity of railroad bridges."

The letter points out bridges were designed to support steam locomotives—heavier than today's trains—and asks railroad companies to assure communities their bridges are safe.

"We're not suggesting any of these bridges are prone to failure," Ryan said. "But this is the kind of thing that happens quietly and trustingly, where people assume there must be an agency overseeing and regulating it very carefully. My main concern is the increased [possibility] of these derailing in or near rivers that are supposed to be under my watch."

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