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River at Risk 

Chasing lucrative toxic dreams along the San Pedro

The sleepy San Pedro River is a dense ribbon of life, weaving 140 miles through Southern Arizona into Mexico. Thick with willows, cottonwoods and nearly 500 species of wildlife, it's nothing short of a national treasure.

If Bisbee businessman Charles Sotelo has his way, however, yawning stretches of this river--including about 45 miles of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation area--will soon host a daily parade of toxin-filled rail cars. At the same time, this scheme could scuttle plans for turning that train corridor into a nature trail.

Much of the proposed cargo would be sulfuric acid, shipped up from the Mexican towns of Nacozari and Cananea. For a glimpse of life with this toxin, you need look no further than Nogales, Ariz., where rail spills are nearly routine. On occasion, those accidents have even forced downtown evacuations.

Now imagine such a spill in the San Pedro. That's a picture easily conjured by Fred Millar, a nationally known expert on hazardous cargoes. "Accidental releases do run into rivers," Millar says from his offices in Arlington, Va. "There's always that possibility. It happened in Pennsylvania a couple of years ago. And before that, there was a big spill in California that killed a river for about 40 miles."

It's a nightmare scenario--and one that seemed remote from the San Pedro until recently. The old tracks are currently owned by the San Pedro Railroad Operating Company, which filed a petition of abandonment in October. This procedural step is required when a rail line is to be discontinued. But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which administers the area, also saw that filing as a first step towards turning the rail bed into a new trail. Called "rail banking," this is a national trend spearheaded by such groups as the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land.

But the petition for abandonment also opened a window for others to purchase the rail line. And that's exactly what happened in February when Sotelo, fronting for a group called the Sonora-Arizona International Corp., offered $5.4 million for the rail line.

According to government documents, Sotelo's group pledges nearly $4 million toward upgrading 76.2 miles of track from Benson to the Mexican border. But much behind this proposal is murky, including the fact that Sotelo has refused to identify Sonora-Arizona's investors.

That leads many to question his financial heft. "I've walked this rail line, and the conditions of the track are horrible," says Cochise County Supervisor Paul Newman. "I believe it needs a $40 or $50 million investment. That's just for upgrading it to the point where I feel safe about rails with sulfuric acid coming so close to the San Pedro River. I'm highly skeptical that (Sotelo's group) has enough money to make those rails safe."

Sotelo himself seems a bit touchy about the subject. When I called his Bisbee office, the proprietor of Valle Realty and Development refused to discuss his railroad plans by phone. When I pressed, he hung up.

Meanwhile, his railroad idea has also sparked an eerie contest between Cochise County and neighboring Santa Cruz County. If Sotelo is successful, it's believed that hazardous cargo now traveling through Nogales would shift east to the San Pedro route. But that's a prize not exactly sought by county health officials.

Nogales is already accustomed to sulfuric acid spills, says Louis Chaboya, director of emergency management for Santa Cruz County. "I don't remember how many tankers cross every day," he says, "but they go along the Nogales Wash and then along the Santa Cruz River. And if you know a little bit of chemistry, you know that sulfuric acid and water is not a pretty sight.

"If it goes to Cochise County, are we going to be happy?" Chaboya asks. "The answer is 'YES' in capitol letters. And I've talked to my counterpart (in Cochise County), and he says, if that doesn't happen, then he'll be happy."

Aside from the potential for disaster, many are dismayed that hopes of turning San Pedro's rails into a trail may be fading. That's despite several high-level efforts, ranging from a supporting resolution from the Cochise County Board of Supervisors to hours of planning by the BLM.

The process of abandoning a railroad or transferring its ownership is regulated by the federal Surface Transportation Board. In March, local BLM officials dispatched a letter to STB head Vernon Williams, venting their frustrations.

Among other things, the letter urged rail banking for the abandoned line, adding that the river corridor "possesses internationally significant resource values, for which the Bureau of Land Management has invested millions of dollars over the years to preserve, protect and enhance." The letter also urged caution regarding Sonora-Arizona Inc. "led by Mr. Charles M. Sotelo, several named venture capitalists, and several unnamed individuals and financial sources, none of whom appear to be highly experienced railroad operators."

And that, the letter says, "represents a disturbing proposition at best."

Michelle Harrington directs the rivers program for the Center for Biological Diversity. And she shares that frustration. "The (San Pedro) trail program has been highly supported by both the BLM and the Cochise County Board of Supervisors," she says. "To get all of those people in line with a trail program--versus development of a rail line--seemed like a real coup."

But that coup could turn to dust, she says.

In response, the center may be heading to court to force a full environmental review of the railroad transfer--a review the STB has so far rejected, saying environmental impacts were sufficiently studied during earlier abandonment proceedings.

Harrington doesn't buy it. Sotelo has "talked about transporting toxic material, and it would travel right along that river for miles and miles," she says. "We don't think that should be done without a (National Environmental Policy Act) review.

Either way, she says this fight is far from over. "We've been working for years and years to keep that river protected. Now it could all be tossed out the window by somebody who just wants to go across the border and make lots of money."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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