A Hidden Danger

A Hidden Danger

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 15 years ago, workers inadvertently found something equally dangerous.

A robotic camera discovered holes in the storm water sewer network near the railroad tracks in Clifton, believed to have been created when the Department of Environmental Quality ordered remediation of the sewers to be done between 1990 and 1991, Clifton Mayor Jim Chesley said during a Town Council meeting Tuesday night, March 7.

The original complaint into the smell of petroleum, which seemed to come from underneath the Clifton Store, was closed, Chesley said, “because there were no further complaints about odors.”

An investigation into the pipes, which Fairfax County began in 2004, was recently completed, and Chesley said he received 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 Lt. Terry Jenkins from the Fairfax County Hazardous Materials and Investigative Services office, along with representatives from Norfolk Southern, the railroad company which operates trains on the tracks several times each day.

A letter from VDOT indicated that the pipes had been replaced in 1990, 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 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 fund-raising 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.