Rail Accident Waiting To Happen?

Rail Accident Waiting To Happen?

Cracked storm water sewer pipes could pose a risk for train traffic.

When the Virginia Department of Transportation was trying to determine the cause of a petroleum odor on Main Street in Clifton two years ago, workers inadvertently found something equally dangerous.

A robotic camera discovered holes in the storm water drain network near the railroad tracks in Clifton.

When residents complained of a strong gas odor in the early 1990s, the Department of Environmental Quality came to town and removed the underground petroleum tanks that had been underneath Main Street near the Clifton Store, said Clifton Mayor Jim Chesley during a Town Council meeting Monday night, March 7.

During that time, the DEQ ordered the storm water drains to be remediated, Chesley said. However, when another complaint about gas odors was received by VDOT in 2004, a gas truck was sent out to determine the cause of the odor.

A camera truck was sent out to investigate the storm water drains, which empty into Popes Head Creek, but the inspection was incomplete.

"There were several blockages caused by breaks in the pipe and the camera fell into a hole," Chesley said. "There was deep water in some of the breaks, and all of the blockages were in areas where the remediation was supposedly done in 1991."

An investigation into the pipes, which Fairfax County began in 2004, was recently completed, and Chesley said he received part of the 126-page document a few weeks ago.

DAMAGE TO THE STORM water sewers is so bad, Chesley said, “continued weakening could result in the derailment of a passenger or freight train” at the edge of the small town.

Chesley said he called Lieutenant Terry Jenkins from the Fairfax County Hazardous Materials and Investigative Services office, along with representatives from Norfolk Southern, the railroad company which operates freight and passenger trains on the tracks more than 20 times each day.

A letter from VDOT stated the pipes may have been replaced in 1991, Chesley said, but they “shared the concern about this portion of the sewer and that partial failure is evident and complete failure could be expected” if the situation were not corrected soon.

“I met with Congressman [Tom] Davis before I received the letter from VDOT and found there was another piece of the puzzle,” Chesley said. The trains that travel on the tracks sometimes carry hazardous materials, like propane, liquefied petroleum gas and corrosive liquids.

“When I talked with Congressman Davis, we discussed the possibility of moving the materials to a different train line,” Chesley said. “He said it didn’t sound likely.”

A letter dated March 3, written by W. K. Woody, an assistant division engineer from Norfolk Southern Railway, stated that he shared Jenkins' concerns about the sewer under the train tracks.

“Failure of this pipe could result in substantial operational problems for Norfolk Southern Corporation and possible liability to the owner,” the letter states. “Please take necessary action to have this pipe replaced.”

“I asked VDOT if they think there’s a problem, and they said it works fine,” Chesley said of the pipes. “Unless it fails, they don’t have to fix it.”

“How old are these pipes,” asked town council member Margo Buckley. “I have to believe the pipes were put in before our time, I don’t remember seeing the railroad tracks torn up.”

Council member Brant Baber said it might be possible to use a portion of the $200,000 money the town received from the federal government for street improvements

“VDOT limits the use to what was included in the Congressional limitations and I’m not sure what’s in there,” he said.

One resident asked if there were escape or evacuation routes mapped out in case of an incident in Clifton.

“Run like hell,” said Baber, with a laugh.

OTHER ISSUES discussed at the meeting included work scheduled to begin on Monday, March 13 to replace two sewage tanks at the end of Chapel Street with one larger tank. Work will take place between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and is expected to take about six months to complete, said resident Pat Layden.

“The access to Buckley Park through the foot bridge will stay open during the project,” Layden said. “They will also have to comply with all the regulations of working in a historic district.”

Three items not mentioned at a recent meeting Layden attended regarding the project included the presence of a control flag waver at either end of the road while the tank was being installed, where equipment would be stored during Clifton Day and the Haunted Trail, and the county’s request to be provided with a contact person. Layden was unanimously selected to fill that role by the Town Council.

In addition, council member Trish Robertson told the other board members that, after a series of successful fundraising efforts, enough money has been secured to complete phase I of a park renovation project. A total of $62,000 was raised for the first phase of the project, to cover the cost of site preparation, new park equipment and some landscaping.