A three-part series this week first looks at the AmeriTies West plant operations and then at what is being done to address odor complaints concerning naphthalene. Finally, it recaps an investigative series by the Cascadia Times that says residents in The Dalles are breathing toxic air.
AmeriTies West treats anywhere from 600,000 to one million railroad ties a year at its plant in The Dalles, sprawled along 80 acres fronting Interstate 84.
Union Pacific Railroad owns the land and is the sole customer of AmeriTies, which owns the buildings. UP sources raw ties from a variety of sawmills in Oregon, said Plant Manager Jeff Thompson, who recently took a reporter on a tour of the plant.
The plant then treats them with creosote, a wood preservative, giving each tie up to 50 years of useful life.
When the tie plant opened in 1922, human chains of men lugged the ties from one place to another, Thompson said. Now the work is done with forklifts.
Untreated ties are delivered to the plant, and get inspected on eight to 10 parameters. The skilled inspectors can assess each tie in just six seconds, Thompson said. Up to 3,000 ties a day are inspected. Less than 3 percent of raw ties don’t meet standards. The plant will mill any imperfect ties to bring them to standard.
The new 25 percent tariff on steel imports imposed by the Trump Administration has rippled into the tie plant, where the price of the steel it uses – end plates that go on each tie, to prevent cracks, plus steel straps – has gone up 11 percent already this year.
The plant makes three categories of ties: the main one is crossties, usually eight feet, six inches long. Those are the pieces that hold the rails together.
They also make switch ties, which are 10 to 27 feet long, and bridge timbers, which can be 30 feet long.
The raw ties, mostly Douglas Fir and some oak, contain a surprising amount of moisture. Wood can hold 110 percent of its weight in water, and the untreated ties typically come in with about 80-90 percent moisture content, Thompson said.
They will sit in the yard drying for five months on average. A representative sample from each batch of ties is tested monthly for water content, and once it gets down to 30 percent, they are ready to be treated.
Meanwhile, they’ve had a series of three-quarter-inch deep cleat marks put in them, which help prevent cracks from spreading, and end plates are placed on them.
While the part of the plant that receives, processes, prepares and dries the untreated ties runs one shift a day, the actual wood treatment process runs around the clock, five days a week.
Each of the five treating cylinders is seven feet tall and 130 feet long, and each holds 725 ties at a time. Untreated ties are loaded on trams and pushed along tracks into the cylinders, tram and all.
During the loading process, misters are turned on above the mouth of the cylinders; the spray is designed to trap the creosote and drop it down to prevent it from going airborne.
The creosote, which is now a 50-50 mixture of creosote and slurry oil in an effort to reduce pollutants, is pumped into the cylinder at a pressure of 130-180 pounds per square inch, depending on the species of wood.
That pressure, plus a minimum heat of 180 degrees, to sterilize the wood, is used to force the creosote into the empty wood cells that once held water. Enough creosote/oil — 2,200 gallons per cylinder — is pumped in to float the ties.
A control room off the large bay housing the cylinders has readout machines for each cylinder that record the exact treatment process, including the temperature and pressure, that each batch went through.
That real-time record of how the tie was treated goes with the ties when they are handed off to the railroad.
Wood is not uniform, requiring adjustments to the treating process. “There’s a lot of operator decision in treating. I kind of compare it to alchemy,” Thompson said.
That position is one of the highest paid at the plant, which has an hourly pay scale starting at $18.67 an hour and topping out at $25 an hour for its nearly 50 employees.
The ties go into the treating bath weighing 150 pounds each, and eight to 10 hours later, come out weighing 220 pounds.
Creosote is a byproduct from the making of coal tar. The primary purpose of that coal tar creation process is to make coke for the steel industry and pitch for aluminum. A main compound in creosote is naphthalene, the ingredient that gives mothballs their distinctive odor. Citizen complaints about naphthalene odors led to several changes to plant processes in 2016.
It takes about 20-30 minutes to prepare a load, and five minutes to actually load, Thompson said.
“If we treat it properly and correctly, the product can be released to be put in a track immediately,” Thompson said. It can be loaded and hauled off by the railroad the same day. But if the railroad wants them to build an inventory, then they typically store it onsite for 90 days.
Nationwide, about 12-15 million ties are used a year, he said, strictly for maintenance, since no new rail lines are being built.
As Thompson and a reporter stood by the cylinders watching Peni Enesi put in a load, Thompson said, “This is the position in the plant that we require to wear respirators.”
Uniforms are laundered by a commercial cleaning service. “A safety factor: keep our dirt here,” Thompson said.