Century-old train trestle in Tuscaloosa getting $2.5 million in repairs
Local environmentalist claims it's not enough to make it safe
Published: Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 11:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 11:42 p.m.
An estimated $2.5 million in repairs is under way on the railway crossing the historic Mobile and Ohio Railroad train trestle spanning the Black Warrior River.
Watco Companies, a Pittsburg, Kan.-based transportation company that leases this section of track from Kansas City Southern, a holding company that owns the track, declined to give specifics on the nature of the repairs.
But Tracie VanBecelaere, communications director for Watco, said the bridge work should be finished by next month with the rest of the railroad repairs finished by April.
"But," VanBecelaere said, "that is dependent on the weather."
The repairs come alongside a Dec. 31 report on a yearlong investigation by the McClatchy Company into national railway safety and the transportation of Bakken crude oil.
The story begins and ends with anecdotes about the 19th-century Tuscaloosa landmark. It raises questions about the safety of the trestle as well as the general transportation of the fossil fuel that originates out of the Bakken Shale Oil Field in North Dakota.
In recent years, the area has become a hotbed of oil production — primarily through the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" — and millions of barrels now flow from the region.
But Bakken crude oil has a different makeup from traditional heavy crude oil, so much so that the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued an alert in January 2014 warning first responders, shipping companies and the general public of its danger.
The warning prompted the International Association of Fire Chiefs to send out instructions on how to handle the substance with "flash point and boiling points (that) may be lower than other traditional light crude oil," the association's warning said.
In July, the Wall Street Journal reported that safety measures normally installed to reduce the volatility of crude oil was skipped in the Bakken region. Now, the product unearthed there is a highly combustible mix that often is rejected by pipelines for being too dangerous to transport.
That's where the trains come in.
A series of derailments of trains transporting Bakken crude caused fires and explosions that often made national news.
The closest to Tuscaloosa occurred near Pickens County Road 2 just south of Aliceville in November 2013 when a 90-car train went off the tracks. About a dozen cars were hauling Bakken crude and the spilled oil caught fire, sending black plumes of smoke into the air that could be seen for miles and causing the evacuation of at least one family.
In June, a train derailment in Buhl caused seven tanker cars to leave the track. Some of them were carrying crude oil, but none of the cars ruptured and nothing caught fire.
Still, as a precaution, six homes that fell within a 1,000-foot radius of the crash site were evacuated.
John Wathen, an environmentalist with the Waterkeeper Alliance and founder of the Hurricane Creek Creekkeeper group, said he has spent months examining the train trestle along with the tracks that feed into and lead away from it.
He said more needs to be done to ensure the structure is safe and that Watco's current repair efforts are not enough.
"This has gotten so bad. It's like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," Wathen said. "Their high bar for safety is the low bar for national safety, and that's wrong."
Watco said the train trestle is inspected annually by Watco inspectors, Kansas City Southern inspectors and a third-party bridge inspector, Osmose Railroad Services.
VanBecelaere said the inspections are required by the federal government, but Wathen said no division of the U.S. Department of Transportation or any other agency oversees them.
"There are no federal inspectors for those bridges," Wathen said. "It's the fox guarding the hen house."
Ed McKechnie, Watco's executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said through VanBecelaere that Watco was aware of Wathen's concerns with the train trestle.
"John has a passion for the environment just as we have a passion for the safety of the communities we serve and our team members," she said. "We are constantly reinvesting in our railroads and are committed to operating them safely."
Reach Jason Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0200.