Two Lafayette property owners have filed suit against Union Pacific Railroad Company alleging that the company has failed to clean up contamination that threatens Lafayette’s drinking water. The land in question, 40 acres along the Evangeline Thruway in Lafayette’s urban center, was once the site of a rail yard and sits above the Chicot Aquifer, the source of Lafayette’s public drinking water.
The Feb. 1 petition alleges that, despite knowledge of a migrating “superfund” of contaminants resulting from spilled oil, fuel and cleaning agents, Union Pacific and co-defendants Consolidated Companies Inc. and Union Pacific subsidiary Southern Pacific Motor Trucking Company have “actively concealed and intentionally failed to disclose evidence of the contamination."
Existence of the contamination plume spurred two earlier suits involving Union Pacific as a defendant, both of which settled out of court. Evidence of contamination throughout the site can be found in court records associated with those case and inspection reports by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“The purpose and object of the suit is to get the people, the state and responsible parties to the table with us and our experts,” said plaintiff attorney William Goodell of Lafayette. “Let’s hammer out a plan on this. Let’s come up with a way to figure out exactly what’s out there and what needs to be done to eliminate this very clear threat that’s been identified in prior lawsuits, and identified by state agencies. Nothing significant has been done to address this.”
The filing includes an expert report by former Louisiana DEQ head Dr. Paul H. Templet, now an environmental consultant, which claims abandoned water wells could serve as "conduits to move contaminated groundwater deep into the Chicot Aquifer."
The plaintiffs — attorney Barry Sallinger, the Salvation Army and Sallinger's Cypress Street Properties — own properties adjacent to the former rail site. The legal team representing them includes Goodell, Joseph “Buzzy” Joy of Lafayette, Elizabeth Roché and Korey Nelson of the New Orleans firm Burns Charest and Gordon Schoeffler of Lafayette.
Schoeffler’s father, Harold Schoeffler of the Acadiana Group of the Sierra Club, has long lobbied for clean up of the former rail site, particularly as it pertains to the construction of the proposed I-49 Connector through the area. The petition claims that construction of the Connector could create potential migratory conduits for the standing plume.
In 2003, DOTD committed to excavating and trucking out contaminated soil along the Connector’s alignment, as well as to taking measures to protect the Chicot Aquifer from impact resulting from the Connector’s construction.
The former rail site, which Union Pacific purchased from Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1960s, was partitioned into four contiguous parcels, one of which was sold to food distributor Consolidated Companies.
In 1998, Consolidated Companies sued Union Pacific for damages accruing from a contamination plume that spread from parcels owned by Union Pacific on to property then owned by Consolidated Companies. The Federal suit held that for the purposes of remediation and assessment of damages, all contiguous parcels in the site, then presently or formerly owned by Union Pacific, would constitute a single facility. Union Pacific would therefore be responsible for environmental remediation of the entire former rail yard. Consolidated Companies ultimately sold its parcel as part of a “secret and illegal” out-of-court settlement with Union Pacific, according to the Feb. 1 petition.
A second suit against Union Pacific relating to the site, as part of a class action claim against Georgia Pacific Corporation, was dismissed in 2011 following an out-of-court settlement.
During the 2004 bench trial for Consolidated Companies’ suit of Union Pacific, it was noted that an exploratory boring conducted on the parcel located along Chestnut Street found contaminants as deep as 42 feet beneath the surface. Hydrologist Stewart Stover Jr. testified at the trial that the contamination increased at increasing depth, but did not reach levels generally considered hazardous.
The shallowest portion of the aquifer under the rail yard is 37 feet, according to the Feb. 1 petition.
The LaDEQ has issued No Further Action letters for portions of the former rail yard, most recently for the so-called “Former PMT Facility” at 810 Southwest Evangeline Thruway in 2012. Still, Sallinger et al. claim that comprehensive evaluation of potential damage to the Chicot Aquifer, and thus Lafayette’s water supply, has not been conducted by the LaDEQ or Union Pacific. Decisions contained in NFA letters are not final, and site monitoring and corrective action procedures can be resumed should evidence further contamination arise, or if the site is to be rezoned. Contamination standards for industrial or commercial sites are lower than those of residential sites.
The petitioners are seeking compensatory, private and punitive damages in addition to a declaratory judgment requiring contamination remediation and evaluation and an injunction to cease polluting activities.