Lumberton, N.C. — Attorneys filed a potential class action lawsuit against CSX on Monday, accusing the rail company of prioritizing its tracks over the people of Lumberton as Hurricane Florence approached.
The complaint, filed in federal court on behalf of at least five people, accuses the company of dragging its feet on a floodgate pitched as a solution to West Lumberton’s flooding following Hurricane Matthew. It also says the company pushed back against local requests to build a temporary berm across CSX tracks as Florence advanced.
“CSX was aware that the underpass was a point of vulnerability for major flooding in Lumberton, ignored reports warning of the need for a permanent floodgate, and refused city officials’ pleas for permission to build a temporary berm to protect against forecasted Hurricane Florence flooding,” the lawsuit states.
CSX has denied these accusations, saying last week that it has been in conversations with local leaders about a permanent floodgate for the area where its tracks cross beneath Interstate 95. A spokeswoman also said CSX needed to keep its tracks open in the days before Florence hit to move hazardous materials out of the storm’s path and move disaster staging materials in.
“As soon as we could, we shut down the line,” CSX Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs Katie Chimelewski said. “We shifted to allow the community to proceed with the project.”
That project consisted of volunteers and members of the National Guard piling dirt and sandbags across the tracks. Gov. Roy Cooper’s office issued an emergency order allowing the project to go forward after CSX refused, according to the Governor’s Office and to state Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, who represents the area and helped lead berm construction.
“CSX officials who were contacted did not consent to allowing for sandbagging of the tracks, arguing that there was no proof that it would work and that it would cause significant damage to their tracks,” Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said in an email. “Upon further consultation and advice of local and state emergency management, the Governor issued an emergency order on Friday morning (Sept. 14) to allow for the construction of a temporary berm at the CSX railroad intersection.”
Chimelewski said last week that order wasn’t necessary, but she could not say when CSX gave the go-ahead for the project.
“The governor’s order was not needed,” she said. “I just don’t know the timing.”
Chimelewski said she was unable to clarify this when contacted Tuesday, after the lawsuit had been filed.
Britt said CSX officials seemed surprised when they showed up at the site Friday and saw the berm project was underway. He said he’d requested a hard copy of the governor’s order to have on hand.
“They clearly didn’t know we were there,” Britt said.
“After they knew about the governor’s order, they might have said that [they allowed the project],” he said.
Chimelewski also denied reports, from media accounts that are repeated in the lawsuit, that CSX threatened legal action against Lumberton if the city built the berm without the company’s permission. WRAL News reached out to a number of Lumberton officials about this, and City Attorney Holt Moore III replied on their behalf.
“I do believe those conversations took place, though I did not speak with CSX directly,” Moore said in an email last week. “I would really like to emphasize that, at this point, we just look forward to working with CSX towards getting the floodgates installed; they will be a necessary partner in that process.”
In a follow-up Tuesday, Moore wrote that city officials are having “ongoing discussions with CSX and are hopeful that we can work successfully together towards the completion of our permanent floodgate project.”