OMAHA, NEB. (AP) - The ongoing dispute between Union Pacific Corp. and the federal government about restricting drug smuggling on the railroad’s trains has spawned two more lawsuits over nearly $38 million in fines that Union Pacific has refused to pay.
The fines against the railroad are related to roughly 40 incidents in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found drugs stashed in railcars crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico from November 2001 until October 2006.
The Justice Department said Wednesday that it has filed federal lawsuits in San Diego and Houston to force Union Pacific to pay the fines. The Omaha-based railroad filed its own lawsuit against the government last summer in Omaha asking a federal judge to set aside the fines.
“Union Pacific believes it has exceeded its legal obligation, and will defend these duplicative lawsuits,” railroad spokeswoman Donna Kush said Wednesday.
But Michael Hertz, acting assistant attorney general for civil cases, said the railroad should do more to ensure the safety of its cargo.
“It is imperative for transportation providers to be vigilant in determining the nature of cargo they bring into the United States from other countries,” Hertz said in a statement.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said he couldn’t answer any questions about the government’s lawsuits besides what was in the news release and complaints. Miller said he wasn’t familiar with the railroad’s existing lawsuit on the same issue. A federal judge has ordered the government to file a formal response to Union Pacific’s lawsuit by midnight Friday.
The two lawsuits the government filed seek $37.7 million in fines. Union Pacific’s lawsuit refers to $37.8 million in fines. It was not immediately clear why the totals were different.
Marijuana accounts for nearly all the 4,514 pounds of drugs agents found in the incidents Union Pacific described in its lawsuit. Only one of the seizures involved cocaine. About 257 pounds of the drug was found in 2003.
Drugs were often found in false compartments on the railcars. Thirty-seven of the seizures took place at the Calexico, Calif., crossing. Four happened at Nogales, Ariz., and one seizure happened at Brownsville, Texas.
In its lawsuit, Union Pacific said it does not control the train cars until after they are inspected by customs agents, so it should not be held liable for what happens in Mexico. Most of the Mexican trains Union Pacific handles are controlled in Mexico by its shipping partner Ferrocarril Mexicano, which runs the Ferromex railroad.
At the border, customs agents take control of trains and inspect them before giving Union Pacific control, the railroad has said.
Union Pacific has said customs inspections themselves often leave the trains vulnerable. While agents check the Mexican railroad crew’s paperwork, railcars can stretch back into Mexico and sit unprotected. Some trains are two miles long.
Union Pacific said it owns 26 percent of Ferrocarril Mexicano but does not control the Mexican company and cannot force it to go after drug smugglers. Mexican mining and railroad company Grupo Mexico controls Ferrocarril Mexicano and Ferromex.
Union Pacific said it is not practical for the railroad to patrol trains in Mexico because its security officers have no authority there and cannot carry guns. Plus, drug trafficking is a dangerous business.
Union Pacific operates 32,400 miles of track in 23 states from the Midwest to the West and Gulf coasts. The railroad interchanges trains with Mexican railroads at six different border crossings.
On the Net:
Union Pacific Corp.: https://www.up.com
Ferromex railroad: https://www.ferromex.com.mx
U.S. Customs and Border Protection: https://www.customs.gov