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Accord Reached on Cost of Fires

Railroad: Company will pay settlement of more than $3 million over blazes near Oregon border allegedly caused by poor maintenance.

September 05, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A railroad company that operates in a remote corner of Northern California pleaded no contest Wednesday to inadvertently setting numerous brush fires along the dry tracks because of poor train maintenance.

The Central Oregon & Pacific Railroad, owned by Florida-based RailAmerica Inc.--the world's largest short line and regional freight railroad operator--agreed to pay more than $3 million in a civil settlement stemming from years of persistent fires, Siskiyou County Dist. Atty. Pete Knoll said.

A December hearing was set to determine further restitution for a 2001 blaze the California Department of Forestry says cost more than $500,000 to douse.

The criminal pleas and civil settlement--completed in Superior Court in Yreka--come during one of the West's worst fire seasons and amid nationwide calls for corporate responsibility. The prosecution was part of an effort by the California District Attorneys Assn. to help underfunded rural counties battle environmental crimes.

Siskiyou County has had dozens of blazes along the once-dormant lines since the Roseburg, Ore.-based company began hauling timber to the town of Weed in 1995, fire officials and prosecutors said.

Constrained by a statute of limitations, prosecutors filed felony charges against the company last summer for recklessly starting 10 fires the preceding year. The civil settlement covered 37 fires over a four-year period, because of a longer statute of limitations in civil cases, Deputy Dist. Atty. Larry Allen said. The 10 criminal counts were reduced to misdemeanors as part of the plea agreement.

Prosecutors and fire officials said years of efforts to prevent the fires, allegedly caused by carbon-clogged spark arresters on aging locomotives, yielded little. But after the felony criminal complaint was filed, the company began upgrading and maintaining equipment and running trains during cooler hours, they said.

Allen said the criminal filing may have averted disaster during two of the driest fire seasons in years.

The company will be placed on three years' probation and assessed $29,000 in fines and penalties. Although it admitted no liability in the civil settlement, the company agreed to pay $175,000 in penalties to Siskiyou County, an additional $29,000 to the California forestry department for fire suppression costs, and restitution to private property owners for at least $200,000 in damaged timber. The company will also implement a $2.9-million fire safety plan over the next three years.

Craig Hutchinson, the rail operator's attorney on the case, did not return a call seeking comment.

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