Officials Demand Cooperation From CSX On Rockland Brush Fires

ROCKLAND COUNTY, NY — The railroad company whose train is suspected of causing the many brush fires that burned 70 acres across Rockland County April 14 promised to cooperate with a local investigation but has not yet been forthcoming, officials said Friday.

In a news conference at one of the fire sites hosted by State Sen. Bill Weber, Congressman Mike Lawler, County Executive Ed Day, County Sheriff Lou Falco, New York Assembly members Ken Zebrowski, Chris Eachus and John McGowan, and local supervisors and mayors focused on thanking the many first responders and sharply criticizing CSX.

Local concern about dangerous freight train incidents is specially high in light of the massive fire in Ohio caused by a Norfolk-Southern train’s derailment, and the collision in Haverstraw between a CSX train and a truck.

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The first reported fires Friday were along the tracks in Stony Point and then erupted along the freight line from West Haverstraw to Congers. Firefighters responded from all 26 departments in Rockland plus contingents from Orange and Westchester counties and Mahwah, New Jersey.

Damage to property from the fires included six homes plus sheds and fences. Five firefighters suffered heat exhaustion, with one sustaining a minor burn to their hand. Parts of Route 9W were closed through the weekend into Monday afternoon to deal with flare-ups, clear burnt utility poles and trees and clear fallen rocks; engineers from the state Transportation Department were called in to check the stability of steep slopes along the route.

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“It could have been much worse,” Eachus said. “We have pictures of flames as high as this house, next to this house. There was a gentleman with disabilities who lives here who needed to be evacuated. And the neighborhood, as well as EMS, came to his aid.”

Eachus and all the other speakers expressed surprise and frustration that CSX has not taken formal responsibility for the fires — specially given that a team from the company arrived rapidly and went door to door passing out forms for residents to apply for reimbursement of damages.

(That process has since been streamlined, Day told Patch. Now, all residents will have to do is email with contact information and basic descriptions of what was damaged or lost, and save receipts to provide upon request.)

Ironically, Weber said he began working on legislation for train safety a couple of weeks ago.

“The fires in Rockland County along the CSX rail lines this past Friday have only heightened the need for this legislation, and we have spent the last several days modifying and improving its language,” he said. “Senate Bill 6435 amends the transportation law concerning penalties for individuals, corporations, companies, and associations violating rules and regulations related to braking systems, steering components, coupling devices, and the transportation of hazardous materials.”

Another irony, Lawler said, was that he had met Friday morning with CSX discussing freight train protocols in light of the recent grade-crossing collision in Haverstraw. “We highlighted our concern about brush fires that break out when they’re doing work on the rail,” he said, adding that a CSX train very likely caused the series of brush fires in Rockland.

He faulted CSX for not reporting the brush fires to the Federal Railroad Administration. Under current federal law, companies choose what to report, he said, “and that’s maybe something we’re going to look at changing.”

Officials also faulted the company’s communications.

County Sheriff Lou Falco said his department’s investigation was moving ahead despite the fact that CSX had not delivered any of the information he had requested.

“I’ve asked for the video from the train, haven’t received it. I’ve asked what the train numbers were so we could go down to the yard in Bergen County and inspect it. I’ve asked for the locomotive inspection and repair reports on the trains that were here that day,” Falco said. “We speak to them, they say it’s forthcoming, but we haven’ received it. These are all delays for whatever reason.”

One thing has gone well, he said.

“Working side by side with the Stony Point, Haverstraw and Clarkstown police departments, it’s been seamless,” Falco said. “My officers and detectives along with detectives from those agencies have walked this whole rail from Stony Point through Congers to make sure that we didn’t miss something.”

They looked for signs of other possible causes, including fireworks, accelerants, gas cans and campfires.

The investigation, which has topped 300 man-hours already, Falco said, has generated a lot of data to analyze.

“We do have footage, we do have videos of the trains passing and the sides igniting,” Falco said. “That will all come out … What we need here today is what everyone behind me is trying to accomplish. We need cooperation from CSX regardless if they feel they’re at fault here or not, to stand with us and let us complete this investigation without throwing roadblocks in front of us.”

Also, officials said they wanted CSX to not only reimburse residents but compensate the volunteer fire departments and the municipalities who had to expend resources.

“Congers lost a fire truck, that’s almost a million dollars by itself,” Falco said. “The sheriff’s office is over $10,000 in overtime, Clarkstown $40,000 in overtime. … I think this is in the millions of dollars, but I don’t know that anyone has taken it all together and compiled an actual hard number yet.”

CSX issued this statement Monday:

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CSX prioritizes safety, above all else, in the communities where we operate. CSX immediately responded to the brush fires in Rockland County and halted train traffic through the area to allow for a safe response. This particular train was carrying mixed freight.CSX teams were on scene within hours and began the process of proactively going door to door, meeting directly with the impacted residents and offering assistance.The CSX train that traveled through the area was inspected and no issues were found.While there has been no official determination as to the cause, CSX has been and will continue to work closely with local officials to provide support, and we are certainly willing to review any information provided to us.We greatly appreciate and thank the volunteer fire departments for their swift action to contain and extinguish the fires.We will continue working with the affected communities of Haverstraw, Congers and Stoney Point, and will consider requests received from residents for reimbursement.CSX immediately stopped all train activity in the area and did not resume until it was deemed safe to do so.


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