Des Moines officials say that construction of a rail-truck transloading facility for Des Moines was delayed by an investigation, which began more than two years ago and that has since been completed. 

The investigation followed allegations made against the selected operator, Steven Braithwaite, over alleged safety and environmental violations at railcar cleaning and transloading facilities he owns and operates in Omaha.

In an interview with the Business Record this week, officials with the city and the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization said they are satisfied that Braithwaite adequately addressed concerns raised by a Des Moines firm that had competed with Braithwaite for the transload facility contract. 

“I think as a public entity we’re very interested in being transparent, and we’re interested in learning about the individuals and entities we’ll be dealing with,” Conner said. 

Braithwaite was the winning bidder in 2016 to operate the proposed rail-truck transload facility on a 12-acre tract of industrial land adjacent to the Southeast Connector east of downtown. He did not respond to a phone message seeking a comment. 

According to an OSHA spokesperson, Braithwaite is currently contesting two OSHA inspection cases that his companies in Omaha were cited for. He is awaiting hearings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the official said.

In the most recent OSHA inspection, conducted in June 2017, the agency documented eight “serious” and one “willful” violation against Braithwaite and his companies, Railcar Service LLC and Railcar Management Services LLC, with total penalties of more than $204,000 assessed. 

According to OSHA officials, Braithwaite is also contesting an inspection report from October 2015 in which his railcar cleaning company, Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services, was assessed penalties totaling $963,000, including citations for multiple instances of failing to monitor air quality properly in confined spaces. That inspection was in response to an April 2015 explosion in which two workers were killed and one seriously injured when a tank car that was being cleaned exploded.

Nebraska Railcar Cleaning had paid total penalties of $6,856 for earlier violations cited by OSHA in a 2013 inspection. After a follow-up inspection in 2015, the company was issued citations for hearing conservation and respiratory protection deficiencies, and paid a fine of $3,800. 

OSHA officials also said that Omaha Transloading was cited for two serious violations of respiratory protection rules in February 2012, and the company paid a penalty of $2,100. 

The private investigator’s report submitted to the city of Des Moines centered on data gathered second-hand from business research company Hoover’s. The MPO, city of Des Moines, and the selection committee learned of the allegations during the process of selecting an operator for the transload facility.

As part of its investigation into the allegations against Braithwaite, the city engaged attorney Jonathan Wilson to review the private investigator’s report. In his report back to the city, Wilson concurred with Braithwaite that the private investigator’s report was “designed purposefully to disparage Steven Braithwaite … [and] Omaha Transloading …”

Wilson concluded that despite several inaccuracies, the report did identify some negative information about Braithwaite and his companies. 

“While it has certainly been prudent to consider the reported, negative information, I reach the conclusion that the selection process has integrity and warrants the continuing confidence of the MPO,” Wilson said in his report. 

“We feel we’ve done an exhaustive process between the MPO and our attorneys to review all of that information,” Conner said, “and Omaha Transloading undertook an independent evaluation and literally went line by line through every detail. We felt enough clarity and transparency was given in their responses.” 

When asked about the overall due diligence process for the facility, Conner said that Braithwaite was involved as an adviser to the project prior to the bidding process beginning.  

“Our process began with Omaha Transloading coming in and taking a look at the site with ‘30,000-foot-level’ input and advisement to us as the Freight Roundtable,” she said. “It was a really good way to get indoctrinated into how a facility would work and to understand Omaha Transloading as an entity and their operation.” 

Subsequently, “we sent out about 28 [requests for qualifications] and got four responses back. That really helped us narrow down who was going to be prepared to activate a market in the city of Des Moines,” Conner said. “By the time we got to sifting through the [requests for proposals]  to make a decision about an operator, I feel like we had absolutely done thorough vetting.”