Railroad and state wrestle over trestle
Wednesday, Dec. 6
Bridge over Scenic Waters
In far West Tennessee, just 20 miles from the Mississippi River, a decaying rail trestle needs repair, but fixing it has turned into a legal battle with statewide implications. At issue is how the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) enforces the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, intended to preserve designated rivers in their natural state.
The 65-year-old bridge spans 3,665 feet of the Hatchie River floodplain. The structure crosses the river channel twice, but most of its length traverses land subjected to frequent flooding, much of it a large island around which the river bifurcates. The overland segments are built on wood pilings 10 to15 feet tall. Rather than repairing or replacing decaying sections, the owners of the rail propose filling in around the trestle with crushed rock, permanently stabilizing the railbed. The land beneath the trestle qualifies as wetlands, so lost acreage must be replaced with created or restored wetlands nearby. The rock fill would also act as a levee, altering the hydrology of the river.
The bridge is currently owned by Canadian National Railways (CNR), which bought Illinois Central Railroad in 1998. Illinois Central first proposed using gravel to stabilize 1,547 feet of the trestle in 1991, but TDEC rejected its Aquatic Resources Alteration Permit (ARAP) because it did not include any mitigation for the lost wetland acreage. The company applied again in 1996, promising to create new wetlands nearby, but again they were denied. Citing a federal permit and an urgent need to stabilize the weakest segments, the railroad proceeded anyway, filling two segments totaling 793 feet. TDEC spokesperson Tisha Calabrese-Benton says the agency was aware of the activity, but “TDEC had no way at the time to deal with emergency provisions through the permitting process, though that has since been changed.”
The railroad kept amended versions of the 1996 permit alive through 2000, submitting a hydrology report and requesting an additional 754 feet of fill, but they still could not satisfy the state. The promised mitigation for the 1.38 acres filled in 1996 never materialized. In June 2005, CNR again applied for a state permit, requesting 990 feet of fill and promising to purchase wetland mitigation credits for both the 1996 repairs and the new fill. Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN), an advocacy organization headquartered in Knoxville, has challenged TDEC’s handling of the application and will go before the state Water Quality Board on Dec.19 with its complaint.
The Hatchie River is “the last major unchannelized river in West Tennessee,” according to TDEC. It flows through two national wildlife refuges and is home to a state-threatened fish, the blue sucker, two rare mussels, southern rainbow and southern hickorynut, and two rare plants, heavy sedge and creeping spot-flower. It has been designated a Class I Natural River under the Scenic Rivers Act, which affords it protections akin to those of federal wilderness areas. The Hatchie is also a Tier II water, which means it can only be degraded if a permit applicant can establish social and economic necessity. TDEC determined the proposed bridge repairs would degrade water quality, forcing the railroad to submit an antidegradation analysis demonstrating such justification.
When TDEC filed the latest ARAP notice, it also issued its decision on the antidegradation filing, siding with the railway’s claim that alternatives are too costly to justify their environmental benefit. TCWN is challenging both this determination and the procedures followed when CNR issued public notice for the project. They contend the public notice was vague as to the nature of the project and the means by which public comments could be submitted. Printed in The Covington Leader in December 2005, the notice referred to the project only as “necessary maintenance alterations.”
Through its several iterations, the project has consistently been opposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and conservation organizations like TCWN. They oppose the constriction of flow the fill would impose on the river, which can cause bank erosion, increased silt loads and channel instability, and they also question the adequacy of proposed wetland mitigations.
In a July 16 letter to TDEC, Lee Barclay of USFWS questioned whether the Cold Creek Wetland Mitigation Site is large enough to provide the credits CNR proposes purchasing. Barclay says, “only one-fourth of the total 34.5 credits from the site would be released when the mitigation plan was approved… and the remaining credits would become available when… success criteria have been met [at least five years from now]. We also know that the current owner of the wetland mitigation site has requested 13.18 credits to compensate for…a proposed waterfowl impoundment area. If this is correct, there would not be enough available credits to compensate for the proposed impacts.”
In the antidegradation analysis BDY Environmental Consultants prepared for CNR, the cost of repairing the bridge with gravel fill is estimated at $1.3 million. The repairs could be completed in a matter of months and be done from railcars, a significant consideration since neither the island nor the northern floodplain is accessible by road. The southern portion of the trestle with road access was repaired in 2002 and 2003, with timber piles replaced by concrete and steel. Similar repairs on the less accessible segments would cost $6.5 million and require three years, and the consultants fear repeated mobilizations of heavy machinery would damage soils and water quality. Though various agencies have suggested the use of culverts within the gravel fill to permit water flow, BDY did not evaluate that alternative.
While fill stabilization could be coordinated with train schedules, replacement of timbers with concrete and steel would disrupt rail traffic. Between 20 and 30 trains cross the bridge each day, carrying $3.4 billion worth of goods each year. BDY describes the Hatchie River crossing as “a single track which connects extensive northern and southern railway networks comprising the only north-south transcontinental rail network in North America.” Canadian National Railways was privatized by the Canadian government in 1995 and is now a major corporation owning rail lines spanning all of Canada and connecting the Great Lakes region with the Gulf of Mexico. In November it announced a 4 percent increase in its capital spending budget for 2007, with track maintenance and improvements making up about half of the anticipated $1.6 billion in expenditures.
The railroads have long contended that a nearby road crossing on U.S. Highway 51 constricts the river to a greater extent than their bridge and is thus the “controlling hydrologic factor.” Modifications to that bridge in 1974 and 1975 resulted in a 75 percent constriction of the floodplain. This alteration did result in channel instability, and in 1989 the highway bridge failed as the riverbank beneath it gave way. In a June 1997 letter recommending denial of a prior permit application, Paul Degges of the Tennessee Department of Transportation said, “the potential exists for the railroad itself to be put at risk” by the repairs.
Tennessee adopted its antidegradation policy three years ago, and this permit is the first application of that law. The upcoming hearing before the Water Quality Board will test both that policy and the relative strength of the Scenic Rivers Act against water quality regulations. TDEC’s Calabrese-Benton says, “This is a unique situation and is receiving careful consideration.”
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