Train derailment a mystery to Lowndes officials

Published 8:34 pm Monday, April 22, 2024

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A train derailment Wednesday has caused a stir in the St. Clair community near Lowndesboro.

On Wednesday, six Meridian & Bigbee Railroad (M&B) rail cars derailed off County Road 40. Laurie Nivison, director of communications with Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, Inc., which owns M&B, said the cars were carrying paper and the site has been cleared and reopened.

“The railcars have since been derailed and cleared and the rail line is back open,” Nivison said. “There was no environmental impact to the area.”

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According to Nivison, the National Response Center (NRC) was notified of the derailment. The NRC in turn notified local, state and federal agencies.

Local and county officials, however, said they were not notified of the event. Most indicated they learned of the derailment by word of mouth through the community or when contacted by the media for comments.

“I found out yesterday at church,” said Dennis Blair with the Lowndesboro Volunteer Fire Department. “I heard there were three train cars laying on their side in a ditch with water running through it.”

Blair said the fire department is called to respond to such incidents, in case they are needed to protect life, property and the environment. He expressed concern that the department was not notified.

“We’re very concerned because we had a train derailment, but we were never called or notified,” Blair said. “We don’t know what went in the water or if there was a spill. The citizens of Lowndes County are asking us about it, and we have no knowledge of it. We find that very concerning.”

Lowndes County Emergency Management Agency Director Rodney Rudolph had not yet learned of the incident before Monday.

“I didn’t know it happened,” Rudolph said and added that he should have been notified.

Lowndes County Sheriff Chris West said his office was not notified. He learned of the incident when reporters with a statewide media outlet called him for information and went to the scene afterwards to investigate the situation.

“I talked with some of the crew members, and they told me what happened,” West said. “It was a small derailment, nothing massive. There was no blocked traffic and no property damage. It wasn’t a chemical spill or leakage.”

Robert Harris is Lowndes County Commissioner representing the district. He also had not heard about the incident.

“The EMA is supposed to be notified,” Harris said. “The Sheriff is supposed to be notified as well.”

Alabama Agricultural Commission Rick Pate owns land near the derailment site and said most of the damage occurred in the railroad right-of-way. He expressed concern over the lack of information available to local authorities.

“It was on the road in front of Mom’s house,” Pate said. “And you just wonder what was in those containers that flipped over. Nobody seems to know.

“I think there must be a protocol. We have a protocol for when chickens get sick, outlining what we do and who we notify. Surely [M&B] had to tell somebody. They had to notify the mayor, but she didn’t know anything until I mentioned it to her Sunday. I think it would be good for the public to know what was in those containers.”

The National Response Center is an office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In accordance with agency guidelines, local fire, police and emergency response personnel are the first line of defense in an emergency situation. The agency does not respond directly to situations like a train derailment unless it deems circumstances necessary to warrant federal involvement.

James Pinkney, public and governmental affairs section manager for the agency’s Gulf of Mexico Division, did not respond immediately to requests for a comment.