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January 2007 Ask the Angry Citizen


Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad

The Worst Corporate Neighbor In Skagit County History

Recently a “Draft” document titled Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Skagit River Bridge Debris Management Study, “Draft” Preferred Alternative Study (“The Study”) was sent out for review by team members and stakeholders (local dike districts, cities and towns, and government agencies). 

(See http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/8700176B-9351-426B-9792-5F17C67CFCC7/0/BNSFSRBDebrisMgmtStudyv9FINAL.pdf).

The purported purpose of The Study was to identify alternatives for managing the large amounts of debris (i.e. log jams) that during flood events collects on the BNSF railroad bridge which spans the Skagit River between Mt. Vernon and Burlington.  This debris has the potential of undermining the levee system or causing bridge failure (something that has happened many times in past years) which could lead to catastrophic flooding events in the lower valley.

While The Study draft takes forever to get to the point, quotes questionable sources, is poorly organized, does not identify who the individual representatives were who sat in on the committee, is repetitive in nature, and appears to have justified its findings by seeking funding sources for local governments to be reimbursed for their activities, the report should cause alarm to not only the residents who live behind the levees, but to all of the taxpayers of Skagit County, the State of Washington and indeed to our nation as well.  For the one thing that jumps out at any reviewer is that the main player, the owner of the bridge, BNSF, not only quit the committee, but then had the audacity to not cooperate with inquiries from the committee with respect to the life span of the 100 year old bridge or construction drawings.  (See page 2, footnote #3 The Study)

An important limitation of this study, discussed under “Analysis of Alternatives”, in this chapter, is the fact that the ranking of the alternatives was affected by the lack of information, concerning the condition and remaining useful life of the BNSF Railroad Bridge.  The project team requested this information from BNSF, but it was not provided.  (See page 25 The Study)

While according to The Study the current steel bridge was built in 1907 (See page 11 2nd ¶) the original bridge was built prior to 1906 as the bridge was reported to have been damaged with debris build up as early as 1896 (See 11/16/1896 TSN).  Numerous times the bridge has been damaged during flood events.  (See 11/22/1897 The Skagit News Herald (“TSN-H”), 11/19/06 TSN-H, 11/22/06 SCT, 11/18/32 MVDH)  Most recently the bridge was damaged in the 1995 flood event (See http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com/articles/1997/10/07/news18168.txt)

The bridge has been blamed in the past for causing damage to the levees – “One of the unfortunate conditions permitted by the government engineers is the diagonal position and oversize substructure with riprap, which carries the Great Northern railroad bridge, north of this city.  This substructure obstructs one-sixth of the waterway at or near a sharp bend in the river, which causes repeated failure of the dikes above the aforesaid bridge.” (See 5/5/27 Argus)

Indeed, the railroad itself recognized as early as 1922 that they had made a terrible mistake in locating the bridge in its current location.  In 1922, the Great Northern Railroad, (“GNRR”) the forerunner to the current owner, BNSF, commissioned a study by one of their own hydraulic engineers, a Mr. Robert Herzog (Note:  This was the first private enterprise hydraulic study of the Skagit River.)  The cover letter to forwarding Mr. Herzog’s report stated in part the following:

You will note that we have a very serious condition to contend with, much more serious than I had anticipated, especially as to the large quantity of water.  The breaking of the dykes during extreme water conditions has always relieved the situation at our bridge #36 and I never realized the total discharge to be as great as it is.  The information given in Mr. Herzog’s report indicates that our bridge has a maximum capacity of only about half the high water flow of the stream.  It is perfectly evident, therefore, that whatever improvements may ever be carried out in this vicinity, the Railway Company will, in any event, have to provide an opening, being an extension of the present opening, or an entirely new opening, of approximately the capacity of the present bridge.  (Source:  9/26/22 GNRR letter and Robert Herzog Report)

In October, 1922 another GNRR official wrote:

There seems to be no question but what the breaking of the dykes above Bridge #36 is what has saved this bridge from being carried out by floods similar to those of December 1917, and December, 1921.  (Source:  10/8/22 Hogeland letter to GNRR President )

Later that month, another GNRR official stated what evidently is the attitude of the BNSF railroad today when he wrote in part:

I judge from Mr. Herzog’s report that to properly take care of the flood waters means an expenditure of possibly Five to Ten Million Dollars.  I do not believe we should take too prominent a part in this flood prevention work, because I do not believe we have as much to lose as the other interested parties and the danger of our pushing the matter, is that an undue part of the cost will be saddled on us, as has been the case at bridge 443.  (Source:  10/11/22 GNRR Vice President letter)

The solution to the problem from the railroad’s position seems to be “let the taxpayer pay for it.”

It seems advisable that we take no interest in this project (Avon By-Pass) other than to state that if it is carried out we will expect that any changes required in our facilities be made at the expense of the Government.  (Source:  11/10/36 Letter to GNRR President)

The situation at the former GNRR Bridge #36, now referred to as the BNSF Bridge #70 has not really changed any in the last 100 years.  However, the amount of damages to our local community due to a bridge failure or damage to the levees certainly has risen to an estimated 1.8 billion dollars during a serious flood event.  (See page 21 of The Study)  At the same time “The BNSF Railroad Bridge has national significance as it is the only north/south railroad line on the west side of the Cascade Mountains and it has international trade importance.  Planning estimates indicate there is a daily average of 12 freight crossings with 56,030,000 in annual freight tonnage.”  (See page 11 of The Study)

For BNSF to not participate in trying to find a solution to the problems THEIR privately owned bridge operating on State lands (the State of Washington owns the bottom of the river) is nothing short of outrageous.  For BNSF R/R not to replace the 100 year old bridge unless it is at taxpayers expense is nothing short of reprehensible.  According to The Study one estimated cost of bridge replacement is approximately 32 million dollars.  (See page 31 of The Study)  32 million dollars represents .8% of BNSF’s reported income on their 3rd Quarter report for 2006.

For BNSF, who proudly acknowledges that by the 3rd Quarter of 2006 they took in "Record Freight Revenues of 3.8 BILLION" dollars, to not even participate in a debris management study of their privately owned bridge operating on state owned lands, that has the potential of creating 1.8 billion dollars of damages to local residents and state owned facilities is nothing short of preposterous.  A better example of corporate greed and social irresponsibility could not be found.  (Source:  http://www.bnsf.com/investors/presentations/pdf/3Q_2006_Presentation_Color.pdf)

The Washington State Department of Transportation (“WSDOT”) should immediately contact the State Attorney Generals Office (“AG”) and at a minimum request that a joint letter signed by the AG and the governors office be sent to BNSF headquarters and inform BNSF that the State of Washington will not be responsible for any damages caused by the operation of BNSF railroad Bridge #70 on state owned lands and in fact will hold BNSF legally responsible for any damages to state owned facilities that can be attributed to the operation of said bridge.  Failing to get a positive response from BNSF, the AG’s office should seek a mandatory injunction from the courts to force BNSF to turn over their information and cooperate with local and state governments for the replacement of the bridge.

In addition, the AG’s office should notify the Dept. of Homeland Security (“DHS”), that the issues presented are in fact involving issues of national security and DHS should take an active role in forcing BNSF to replace the bridge.  The justification is that BNSF is apparently under funding necessary capital improvements to a 100-year old deficient facility and that is not responsible management of the strategic assets entrusted to them.

Further, the Skagit County Commissioners, Dike Districts 12 and 17, and the cities and towns of Burlington, Mt. Vernon, and LaConner should through their respective councils send letters to BNSF informing them that they will hold BNSF legally responsible for any damages to their facilities and/or residents for any flood related damages that can be traced to Bridge #70.

Corporate irresponsibility based on corporate greed that has the impact of recklessly endangering the lives and property of the residents of Skagit County should not be tolerated nor go unpunished.

May your fields be ripe and budding and your rivers full and flooding (because its the only time people pay attention).

 The Angry Citizen