Schumer: More oversight of railroad bridges is needed

Times Herald-Record | December 24, 2014 | Column by James Walsh

CITY OF NEWBURGH -- Sen. Charles Schumer on Tuesday called for more federal inspections of railroad bridges after deteriorating conditions were found at two Cornwall bridges and another in Kingston that routinely support trains hauling millions of gallons of crude oil.

Sen. Charles Schumer expresses concern that poorly inspected and deteriorating railroad bridges will lead to accidents and spills at a press conference Tuesday in Newburgh. ALLYSE PULLIAM/For the Times Herald-Record

Crumbling concrete foundations were found by Riverkeeper at the Kingston bridge over the Roundout Creek. Two in Cornwall just south of Storm King Mountain had similar concrete deterioration, as well as exposed rebar and missing or loose bolts. Schumer wanted all three immediately subject to federal inspection.

The bridges are owned by CSX, which did not return a reporter's request for information about the bridges. The ones in Cornwall are adjacent to the Hudson River. The one in Kingston is near four marinas, as well as a popular promenade that extends under the railroad bridge.

Standing near the CSX tracks looming over Front Street, Schumer showed photographs of the Cornwall bridges taken by John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper's boat captain.

"They are old; they are not in good shape," Schumer said. He was not saying disaster was imminent, but rather that the conditions warranted close inspections of all three structures. One of the Cornwall bridges is more than 100 years old.

Federal law requires railroads to inspect their bridges at least annually. The inspection reports are subject to audit by the Federal Railroad Administration, which may also interview the structural engineers who wrote the reports.

Yet there are only seven inspectors assigned to oversee audits of all privately owned train bridges across the country, Schumer said, and just one inspector for 3,000 bridges in New York state. The FRA did not immediately respond to Schumer's demand for it to inspect the bridges.

Schumer said the system was woefully understaffed, and left too much to the railroads' discretion.

"These bridges run right along the precious Hudson River, and every day there are freight trains carrying hazardous materials and crude oil right over them," Schumer said. "Any problem with their structural integrity could lead to a disaster of epic proportions."

Orange County Legislator Curlie Dillard, who represents the city and town of Newburgh, spoke for County Executive Steve Neuhaus at the meeting with Schumer. Dillard called the questionable condition of the bridges a serious issue. He said he lives near the CSX tracks in Newburgh and has worries about the transport of crude oil.

Riverkeeper has called for a moratorium on the transport of crude oil in the state. It cites concerns not only of bridge stability, but also of track and rail-car integrity.

"The Hudson cannot afford the damage that a crude-oil spill could cause," said Lipscomb.  "... We need independent, enforceable oversight immediately."

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Staff reporter Jeremiah Horrigan contributed to this report.

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PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.