Pan Am to pay fines for railroad fires

Posted May 27, 2010, at 10:05 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:37 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A Superior Court judge last week signed off on a settlement that fined Pan Am Railways $12,000 in connection with fires in 2007, 2008 and 2009 caused by debris along its railroad tracks.

The North Billerica, Mass., firm, which operates Maine Central Railroad Co., pleaded no contest May 20 to three civil infractions of failure to maintain a railroad right of way.

The settlement agreement bars additional charges being filed against the railroad for possible violation in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It also bars prosecution for fires in 2010 before May 20 with a few exceptions.

Those exceptions include fires in Carmel and Hermon on March 19 and others in Hermon and Carmel on May 2.

The railroad’s attorney, Glen Porter of Bangor, declined to comment on the settlement.

Efforts Thursday to reach representatives of Pan Am were unsuccessful.

Statistics compiled by the Maine Forest Service and provided to the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office showed that from Jan. 1, 2004, through Dec. 31, 2008 there were 213 fires attributed to debris, such as brush, grass and dead vegetation, in railroad right of ways in Maine. Of those, 177 were along tracks owned by Pan Am. The service attributed 42 of the 50 fires along tracks last year to Pan Am.

Click to download a map from the Maine Department of Conservation detailing railroad wildfires (6.4mb, pdf).

Damage estimates and fire fighting costs were not included in any court documents.

Recently, the company has taken steps to lower the potential for fires along its tracks, James Diehl, assistant district attorney for Penobscot County, said last week. They have purchased turbo engines, which decrease sparks on the tracks, sprayed herbicide along tracks in populated areas and coordinated controlled burns with the Forest Service and local fire departments.

A controlled burn was conducted in April in Veazie.

The company operates 564.6 miles of track or 34 percent of the tracks in Maine, according to statistics compiled by the Maine Forest Service, the agency responsible for documenting violations.

The state statute covering railroads requires that “the area within seven feet outside the rail, including ballast and towpath, must be kept clear of flammable material that by its physical arrangement or its accumulation is likely to contribute to the propagation of railroad-caused fires.

If an area of track is found to be fire prone, the area within 25 feet outside the rail must be kept clear of flammable material. The seven-foot standard also is extended to 25 feet in areas of high-value property where residences and businesses could be damaged by a debris fire.

The statute also states that railroads may be fined $1,000 per day during the calendar year in which violations occurred.

The statute is rarely enforced by court action, according to Diehl. He said last week that this is the first time since 1985 that a railroad has been prosecuted as a result of fires along the tracks.

The complaint resulted from a letter dated June 26, 2009, and given to the District Attorney’s Office by former Ranger Joseph Pelletier. Pelletier retired last September.

“The Maine Forest Service has an interactive right-of-way hazard reduction clearance program that includes involvement of railroad officials at all levels,” he wrote. “Joint right-of-way inspections are conducted with forest rangers and local railroad personnel in late fall that lists an analysis with solutions.

“This information,” he continued, “is consolidated with five-year fire occurrence within district and regional geographic areas and a clearance plan is communicated through higher-ranking officials between both agencies during the winter months. Spot compliance inspections are conducted after May. The cooperative approach has worked well for reducing railroad-caused fires for all railroad companies operating within the state, with the exception of Pan Am Railway.”

Pan Am, according to Pelletier, caused 140 of the 146 railroad fires between 2003 and 2008 in 11 of the 18 communities in his district. The fires resulted in more than $75,000 in suppression costs, he wrote.

Pelletier’s district covered parts of Waldo, Hancock and Penobscot counties and contained the towns of Plymouth, Etna, Burnham, Troy, Dixmont, Newburgh, Unity, Thorndike, Jackson, Monroe, Winterport, Knox, Brooks, Monroe, Frankfort, Prospect, Verona Island and Stockton Springs.

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