Feds fine Alaska Railroad for weed growth, citing safety hazards

Posted: Tuesday, August 08, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Federal railroad safety regulators have proposed that a $20,000 fine be levied against the Alaska Railroad Corp. for allowing too much plant growth along some of its tracks.

Former-Gov. Bill Sheffield said don't blame the railroad.

The Alaska Railroad for years has wanted to spray the herbicide ''Roundup'' along its tracks to kill vegetation whose root systems can tear up railbeds, obstruct signs or become tangled around switches, Sheffield said Monday during an appearance before the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.

But residents, politicians and the courts have blocked the spraying. That means maintenance crews are fighting a pitched but often losing battle against shrubs, branches and weeds, he said.

Alaska is the only state that doesn't use herbicides to rid the tracks of stubborn vegetation, said Sheffield, who now is railroad president.

''You can't burn it, steam it or pull it and get the root systems out of the ground,'' he said.

The Federal Railroad Administration sent the Alaska Railroad a notice last month that it was being fined $20,000 for 20 violations.

D.B. Messmer, a track safety inspector from North Dakota, wrote that he found violations last August at three locations: the North Pole siding track, the Healy rail yard and the Anchorage rail yard.

Messmer's report outlines a pattern of problem plant growth along the Alaska Railroad dating back to 1996. That includes an inspection in 1997 that found 105 overgrown locations, some a mile long.

In 1998 and last year, the railroad ''continued to ineffectively address the vegetation problem by burning and steaming the foliage from plants,'' Messmer wrote. But the remaining plant branches and stems still posed a tripping hazard.

The railroad used prison inmates in those years to dig up entire plants with hand tools, but that is ''a very slow and expensive process,'' Messmer wrote.

The Federal Railroad Administration told the railroad it has two choices on the $20,000 vegetation fine: Send a check or a written excuse that might provide the basis for compromise.

The railroad hasn't decided what it plans to do, spokesman Scott Banks said.

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