Dangerous situation

Oakvale resident Ronnie Rumley lives a short distance across the street from this railroad retaining wall that, he says, often needs to be propped up. He is concerned it may give way and jeopardize the integrity of the tracks.

OAKVALE — Previous landslides on Cumberland Road in Oakvale have left town residents asking for a permanent solution to the problem because they fear another, possibility major slide, would leave residents stranded and damage their property.

Oakvale Mayor Debbie Rachel called a special meeting last week and asked residents to sign a petition asking for help.

“We have one way in and one way out,” she said of the road. “The mudslides are blocking the road and we can’t get any help.”

Two slides have occurred on the narrow road that is used by about 25 people, with the largest near the road’s entrance behind Oakvale Methodist Church.

Although the state Department of Highways mitigated both slides and put gravel down to make the road passable, residents are concerned about a major slide that could impact the church and trap people, many of them elderly, who live there.

Cumberland Road runs parallel to the main Norfolk Southern tracks that run through the town, and the houses are located between the road and the tracks. However, more tracks are above the road on a very steep embankment and that is where the problem is.

With the volume of rain recently, landslides have been common in the area and DOH handles them, but the railroad tracks above the road, which are still used by NS but not frequently, limits the ability of DOH to find a permanent solution.

Joe Pack, design engineer and interim director of the DOH District 10 headquarters in Princeton, said he understands the residents’ concern and at this point DOH has done all it can do to make the road passable and safe.

“We believe it is safe and the overall conditions leave it passable,” he said, adding that DOH would not leave any section of a road that could pose a potential danger to those who use it, but landslides are common and unpredictable.

“It’s part of living in West Virginia,” he said. “We have spent several days out there doing cleanup and a level of maintenance we feel appropriate.”

Pack said to completely mitigate the situation for the long term would mean a major excavation of the steep hillside.

“But any excavation will undermine the hillside (and the railroad tracks) and cause more damage,” he said, adding that anytime a problem is reported DOH sends a crew.”

Pack said Norfolk Southern has told DOH a water drainage issue was under the track above.

“We have been told by them they sent a crew to divert the drainage,” he said. “We don’t have any reason to doubt that they did what we were told.”

Mitigating slides in a way to entirely prevent another one is often not an easy job, he added.

“There is a balancing act between excavating materials that might fall and doing more damage to the hillside above,” he said. “We monitor the road after every rain event. “

Pack said if any change in the hillside is noted, with drainage especially, the DOH contacts Norfolk Southern.

“Our goal is to make it as safe as possible,” he said. “At some point (during the process of mitigation) we do have to take the situation and use sound judgment on how to best provide access. If a slide occurs again, we have crews who are ready to go. They are like first-responders .. and we respond 24 hours a day and we will be there.”

Pack said DOH has used large trucks while working on the road and they did not have an issue, so he said most emergency vehicles should be able to use the road.

“I understand their concerns,” he said. “All we can do at this time is to keep an eye on it and monitor it and we will do what is necessary to make it passable and as safe as possible. You have to always keep in mind what it (excavation work) will do to the slope.”

But a long-term solution, he added, will involve the railroad.

However, residents say they have had no luck at all in receiving any help from Norfolk Southern and have found it difficult to find someone to talk with about the problem.

Shenae Bailey, Oakvale town recorder, said she understands it’s a matter of DOH and the railroad working together, but no one from the railroad has said that would happen.

“When the rains start coming, and they have, it gets worse and worse daily,” she said of the threat of a slide. “We can’t get any help. We have called, we have tried. We are not a priority … We don’t have a second access. If we did that would be different.”

At one time Cumberland Road did exit across the tracks about a mile east of town on Rt. 112. But that crossing was in a curve and the railroad closed it years ago for safety concerns, Bailey said.

Rachel said when she initially called the railroad she did talk to customer service in Atlanta and was referred to other people for help, but received no answers.

“They don’t take my calls now and won’t return calls,” she said. “We can’t leave it like it is. Somebody’s got to come in and do something.”

Several residents expressed concern about the weight of all the gravel being put down and is sinking the road and may jeopardize the possibility of a fire truck getting through. They also said some underground caves may be causing the road to sink.

“This is a continuing problem that needs to addressed,” said councilman Tom Jenkins. “It has been going for some time. We’ve got to protect the residents.”

Rachel said officials have been down to try to help out, including a representative from Rep. Carol Miller, R-3rd District, office, but nothing has been done.

Residents are also worried about the possibility of a train using the top tracks derailing and sending cars tumbling down the hill onto the houses below if the track gives way because of the sinking ground underneath.

“There’s not but one or two trains a week coming over those tracks,” said resident Ronnie Rumley. “But that’s a lot of weight coming over there. The railroad needs to address the problem and stop it up there and then they (DOH) can clean it out at the bottom, but they can’t take the liability of moving that dirt.”

Retaining walls need to be erected, Rachel said.

Kevin O’Donnell has lived on Cumberland Road for more than 20 years and he worries about the elderly who may need rapid medical attention or in case of a fire.

“I would not take a very large fire truck up there because of how far you would have to get over on the edge,” he said.

Rumley said each week he sees only one or sometimes two trains use the upper track, which crosses the large, towering trestle above the old Rt. 460 just below Oakvale School and beside the Oakvale Volunteer Fire Department about half a mile away.

“They are always hauling rock,” he said.

Rumley, who lives only about 100 feet from the main railroad tracks on the south side of town near the crossing of Rt. 112, said he is also concerned about a retaining wall for the gravel under the rails in front of his house that keeps moving, needing to be propped.

The railroad has told him it’s safe, he said, and they will come on occasion and jack the trails up and put more gravel under them, and that concerns him.

Rumley said as far as he knows there has never been a derailment in the town of Oakvale, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

“If that wall falls the tracks will give way,” he said. “They act like they don’t care.”

Rachel Bradshaw, manager of media relations for NS in Norfolk, said last week she was unfamiliar with the Oakvale situation, but she will look into it.

In the meantime, residents say they will not give up until something is done, and hope for no heavy rains.

“How would you like to live up a road, and be scared to drive it?” asked resident Kimberly Ballard. “How would you like to have to think about the road caving or sliding every time you drive it? Or better yet. How would you like to think your home catches fire or need an ambulance and they can’t get to you?”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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