CHILDERSBURG, Ala. (WIAT) — Enjoying Alabama’s waterways can sometimes come with danger.
Under a railroad bridge on the Tallaseehatchee Creek, a tributary of the Coosa River in Childersburg, a massive debris and trash collection has piled up. Nearby residents and business owners said that due to the debris, they often get flooded.
Pop’s Place Boat Launch owner April McGee contacted CBS 42 after trying to get in touch with officials from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Alabama Power and the railroad companies for help.
“Everyone points the finger at someone else. It’s not their lane, it’s not their problem,” McGee said. “Granted the train company did not put the debris there, but they are the cause of the backup.”
The mess persisted, even after CBS 42 did a story last year.
“Not too long after you guys left, it started building back up,” McGee said. “With all the rains and floods this year, it’s gotten piled up to where we can’t manage it.”
The debris pile caught under the trusses of the railroad bridge is riddled with anything from trash cans to chunks of trees.
Coosa Riverkeeper Justinn Overton said it causes persistent flooding and increases sediment in the water, in turn, harming the water life’s habitats.
“What’s happening with these floods, the bank is eroding which is contributing to that sedimentation issue,” Overton said. “You’re having the banks start to collapse and more trees are falling because the creek bed is scouring itself out.”
Overton said the flooding impacts animals’ ability to know where to find food and ways back to their habitats and negatively influences their reproductive cycles. She called this a preventable catastrophe for both the trains that cross the bridge and the boaters below.
“The excess weight that’s coming on that trestle is obviously not good for the long term,” she said. “Obviously, we’ve got trains potentially carrying hazardous material across the waterway, but also, we’ve got kayakers that want to go up creek and want to enjoy and float this creek and it’s a danger to the people that are trying to enjoy their waterways, even if it’s downstream or going upstream.”
Further investigation pointe to the section of tracks is owned by the RJ Corman Railroad Group, based in Nicholasville, Kentucky. The company operates 19 shortline railroad companies spanning from Alabama to New York to help with things like railroad construction, switching services and emergency response.
McGee said that over the last two years, she has contacted the company several times, asking for help to clean up the debris. So, we took our questions directly to the Federal Railroad Administration.
While out reporting on the story, an FRA inspector was assessing the condition of the railroad and debris within 48 hours of contact.
Following the inspection, the FRA sent the following statement to CBS 42:
Instead, the FRA cited RJ Corman for failing to maintain proper drainage under the Federal Track Safety Standards, which states that responsibility for inspection and maintenance resides with the railroad.
Officials with RJ Corman said they are aware of the debris under the bridge and that there is an ongoing plan for springtime cleanup.
RJ Corman sent the following statement:
The statement goes on to state the bridge is inspected weekly, is in safe condition and that they have dispatched their own crews to start the cleaning process until a contractor can finish the work.
On Monday, crews were seen beginning the cleanup process to remove the clog, sending some of the debris downstream in the process.
“I hope they come out every time April calls,” Overton said.
Overton said she would like to help RJ Corman develop a maintenance plan that’s safe for the water.
Attempts to follow up with RJ Corman on how often they were planning to clean and maintain the waterway beneath the bridge were not successful.
“Not just to get it cleaned up, but to get it maintained where it doesn’t get to this level,” McGee said. “Some sort of monthly cleanup would help instead of just letting it continue to pile up.”
Right now, the FRA is deciding if the company should be fined.
According to a spokesperson from the Association of American Railroads, a bridge’s aesthetic look says nothing about its structural integrity. Senior Director of Media Relations Jessica Kahanek said railroad companies use track geometry and ultrasonic technology in their inspections to identify issues that are not visible to the human eye. Kahanek said this allows them to inspect more track in less time. Railroads even use drones to inspect bridges faster.
Kahanek said the technologies have helped identify issues before they happen, making 2022 the lowest rate of track-related accidents.
The latest FRA data on Alabama railways can be read here.
FRA officials said that in the coming weeks, they will be following up to see that RJ Corman removed the debris. That site visit is when officials say they will determine if a civil penalty is warranted.