Thursday, July 24, 2008

Union Pacific settles claim with DoJ that arose from 2000 Storrie forest fire

Union Pacific Railroad will pay the United States $102 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the U.S. Attorney's office for Eastern California to recover damages that arose from the devastating Storrie Fire that burned for nearly a month and consumed over 50,000 acres of private timberland and two national forests in Plumas County in August and September 2000. It is the largest forest fire settlement ever reached.

The fire ignited on August 17, 2000 in the Feather River Canyon north of Storrie, CA on the railroad right-of-way through the Plumas National Forest. The cause was determined to be negligence on the part of a track gang that failed to clear the tinder from the area of the repairs, and failed to use spark shields during track repairs.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Kendall J. Newman, the lead government attorney in the case against UP, the Forest Service mobilized more than 2,600 federal, state and local firefighters, air tankers, helicopter crews and other personnel to fight the Storrie forest fire. The fire burned for more than three weeks, encompassing an area of more than 52,000 acres within the Plumas and Lassen National Forests before it was fully extinguished. Fire crews successfully suppressed the fire, without the loss of any life or buildings, at a cost of approximately $22 million.

The fire caused substantial damage to National Forest System lands, destroying wildlife habitat and killing trees on more than 21,000 acres. The areas ravaged by the fire included pristine, old growth forests that Congress expressly set aside for preservation by protecting them from logging through the Quincy Library Group Act and federal Wilderness Area designation. The Court ruled that the people of the United States are entitled to compensation for the unique aspects of the damaged forests, above and beyond the fair market value of the timber destroyed. The remaining $80 million of the settlement compensates the United States for damages to its natural resources. The settlement monies will go directly to the Plumas and Lassen National Forests to help remedy the resource devastation from the fire.

"We are pleased with this settlement. The money will be quickly applied toward restoring the landscape and the ecological balance on National Forest lands damaged in the fire so that the public can once again enjoy these pristine forest regions," said Under Secretary Rey.

"Protection of our natural resources is of vital concern to the well-being and safety of the people in California," said U.S. Attorney Scott. "Every year we see the devastation to lives and property caused by uncontrolled forest fires. It is incumbent upon businesses operating in the national forests, such as UP, to take active responsibility in reducing the risk of wildfires. This $102 million settlement appropriately compensates the United States for the vast destruction that resulted from the 2000 Storrie Fire in the Plumas and Lassen National Forests."

Union Pacific will satisfy the judgment in three installments paid over the coming weeks. The first payment of $35 million was remitted on July 2. The remaining payments are scheduled for August and October. "This settlement demonstrates the importance of bringing cases to recover for the damage and expenses caused by wildfires. Wildfires in or near National Forests destroy precious natural resources and the government spends millions of dollars fighting wildfires. The Department of Justice will seek compensation from those who are responsible for those losses wherever possible," said Associate Attorney General O'Connor.

The pursuit of satisfaction by the Justice Department in the case of the Storrie Fire is the latest in a series of cases where forest fires are started by human activity. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California has recovered tens of millions of dollars in forest fire cases, including the $14 million settlement in September 2006 from Southern California Edison as a result of the Big Creek Fire.

The Eastern District of California has more federal forest land than nearly any of the jurisdictions, and they have aggressively pursued remedies when fire damages or destroys federally protected lands. The U.S. Attorneys office for the Eastern and Central Districts of California and the District of Utah have set up special Fire Recovery Litigation Teams that do nothing but pursue forest fire judgments.

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