Muskogee City-County Port Authority this week revised the rules that govern its railroad operations and fees.
The amendments clarify provisions contested during the past year by Union Pacific Railroad following flooding along the Arkansas River that began in May 2019. The flood inundated areas of the Port of Muskogee, where 93 railcars became stranded and liability became an issue.
Port Director Scott Robinson said about 60 of those cars "got wet" during the flood. He said some of the railcars "barely got wet" and others "got more than barely wet," but "there was quite a bit of controversy over whose responsibility it was to repair the flooded cars."
Operations Manager Lewis McLemore said at the time there was some concern that sediment from floodwaters might have infiltrated the wheel bearings. Those bearings are part of a wheelset assembly that must be replaced as a unit.
Union Pacific initially attempted to assign liability for flood-related damage to the port. Robinson said the company refused to move the railcars exposed to floodwaters from the port until the wheelsets were replaced, an undertaking that costs an estimated $23,000 for each assembly.
Robinson told port authority directors at the time he didn’t “think we have any responsibility for the cars” or “any responsibility for the cargo.” He said this week the issue of liability proved controversial, but the port ultimately prevailed by adhering to the position he staked out more than a year ago.
"There are interchange rules that apply to railroad carriers and between carriers and the customers they serve," Robinson said, citing those rules as the basis for the policy revisions. "We are neither a carrier nor a customer, we are a switching contractor — that is the argument we made to them, and we ultimately prevailed on that argument."
Robinson said while some of the shippers at the port repaired some of the railcars, the responsibility for repairing most of them fell to Union Pacific. He estimated the total cost of those repairs at about $900,000.
Elizabeth A. Graham, a Union Pacific spokeswoman, said on Wednesday the railroad company had not been made aware of the changes approved a day earlier.
"Union Pacific works closely with the Port, however, and looks forward to collaborating with them on any changes that might be implemented," Graham said, responding by email to the Phoenix. "The damage that occurred to the rail cars located at the Port of Muskogee during the 2019 flood was unfortunate, and Union Pacific is hopeful that the parties can avoid a similar incident in the future."
Robinson said the revised policy makes clear when railcars are in the port's "care, custody and control" and when that has been transferred to industry or the carrier. He said that transfer occurs when the cars have been "coupled or uncoupled."
"I think we have resolved the issue of who's responsible for damage to the cars and who has care, custody and control of those cars … in accordance with interchange rules industry uses, and it will be easy to defend these rules," Robinson said. "We will make sure in the event of a flood we will have moved any cars to areas that will not flood. We have several areas of high-ground storage."
Robinson has described the 2019 flooding as “unprecedented flows and river stages and elevations on the Arkansas River.” Preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey show the river crested May 26, 2019, at 46.39 feet near Muskogee.
The Arkansas River at that elevation was 6.79 feet above the 39.6 feet recorded during an Oct. 6, 1986, flood. Many hydrologists consider the 1986 flood the flood of record after the completion of McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System almost 50 years ago.