By Brenda Flanagan
We’re on the Hackensack with public safety advocates using the Riverkeeper’s boat to inspect the underbelly of three freight rail bridges that cross New Jersey waterways. As we pull up to bridge number one — called the Draw of the Hack — five CSX engines rumble across.
These engines pull heavy, black tank cars loaded with volatile Bakken crude oil across the three bridges as they roll through New Jersey, up to 15 times a week. The danger? Derailments like last month’s accident in the Columbia River gorge. The Federal Railroad Administration determined lack of track maintenance caused this conflagration.
Back at the Draw of the Hack, Hackensack Riverkeeper Program Director Capt. Hugh Carola said, “We have a lot of rust. More than the rust, which could simply be on the surface, we have all this cracking here on the bedding.”
Advocates peer worriedly at the rusty, century-old drawbridge perched on crumbly-looking supports.
“Crude oil is particularly heavy. And the heavier the material that you’re carrying, then obviously the heavier the train itself. And the older the tracks, the older the infrastructure, the older the bridges, the more chance of compression damage,” Carola said.
But without an engineering report, it’s tough to determine whether these injuries are structural or cosmetic. Complicating matters: the river water’s very brackish from ocean tides.
“We’re looking at a good two-thirds as salty as the ocean, which means a lot of corrosion. So whether we’re talking some old steel, or we are talking about the mortar, just the age of these things. I mean, yeah they were built to last, but they’re not meant to last forever,” Carola said.
We cruise around Kearny Point onto the Passaic River and bridge number two — a swing-open span called the Point-No-Point, in the shadow of the Turnpike Bridge. It’s obviously corroded and sitting atop cracked supports.
“And so for these communities that have these bridges, that have them going over their waterways, that have the trains running through their towns, they should be able to know wither they’re being maintained and whether these are actually safe,” said Waterkeeper Alliance Attorney Larissa Liebmann.
Conrail does — it maintains the Draw of the Hack, too. Our third stop actually features two, parallel railroad bridges — both over Overpeck Creek. To the west, the decrepit New York Susquehanna and Western Railway span’s slated for replacement, but there’s no money left in the Transportation Trust Fund to pay for it and Norfolk Southern won’t confirm or deny whether it moves crude oil on this line. To the east runs a CSX bridge, inspected last August. CSX claims it would halt all railroad operations if it believed a bridge was unsafe. But advocates reached out to the federal government for reassurance.
“The Federal Rail Administration is going to get back to us about these three bridges we’ve been looking at. We hope,” said Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains Founder Paula Rogovin.
Meanwhile, all those trains and their cargo will just keep rolling along.