Small crayfish delays rail bridge replacement in West Virginia

Matewan, West Virginia, has been the scene of many historical conflicts, including the Hatfield-McCoy feuds and a violent coal miners’ strike in 1920. The latest conflict was smaller and biological: a tiny crayfish delayed the replacement of Norfolk Southern Corp.’s twin bridges over the Tug Fork River.

Adult Big Sandy crayfish are 3–4 inches long and look similar to the lobster. This crayfish is a newly listed threatened species. A transmitter has been attached to the crayfish as part of the monitoring effort.

In 2017, Hanson began design and permitting services for the replacement of the bridges, which consisted of four 150-foot through truss spans. A Department of the Army Nationwide Permit 3 for maintenance activity was needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). During the permit process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) notified the USACE that the Big Sandy crayfish (Cambarus callainus), a newly listed threatened species, may be adversely affected by the project. Hanson began preparing a biological assessment to evaluate the potential effects. However, so little was known or understood about the Big Sandy crayfish, a relatively new species, that complications arose during the consultation with the USFWS because the science around the species’ preferred habitat, movement and distribution changed while the biological assessment was developed. The Norfolk Southern project was the first biological assessment for the Big Sandy crayfish in the U.S., and the changing science caused a lot of uncertainty for the USFWS.

Working closely with the railroad, its outside legal counsel, and a local crayfish expert, Hanson’s bridge engineers and biologists implemented several proactive and reactive measures. Crayfish survey methods, parameters and intervals acceptable to the agency and railroad and innovative solutions — including funding the setup of a crayfish holding facility and research laboratory — were negotiated, and a temporary work bridge and cofferdam was installed to prevent the crayfish from entering the construction zone. These efforts guided the USFWS process to the eventual issuance of the biological opinion, which enabled the USACE to issue the Department of the Army permit and construction to proceed.

Construction began in the summer of 2019, but another delay came one year later, when the new staff at the USFWS West Virginia Field Office had a different interpretation of the language in the biological opinion issued by the former USFWS staff. The formal consultation was reinitiated, temporarily suspending the project’s Department of the Army permit. Hanson, continually working closely with Norfolk Southern, renegotiated the crayfish monitoring, survey methods and intervals, and a new biological opinion was issued, allowing for the permit to be reinstated.

A replacement span is lowered for Norfolk Southern Corp’s bridge over the Tug Fork River at Matewan, West Virginia.

The proactive measures implemented to separate the crayfish from the construction activities allowed the bridge work to continue within the cofferdam while the biological opinion was renegotiated. The bridge replacement is substantially complete and construction demobilization is expected to be complete this fall.

Jennifer Sunley, Hanson’s natural resources discipline manager, and Ruth Brown, P.E., a Norfolk Southern regional engineer for structures, will discuss the project and its unique challenges at the Virtual Railroad Environmental Seminar. Jennifer and Ruth will describe the difficulties of preparing the first biological assessment of the Big Sandy crayfish in West Virginia with an uncertain and nervous agency during their presentation, “Big Sandy Crayfish vs. Norfolk Southern: How This Newly Listed Threatened Species Delayed Construction and Drove Up Cost for Replacement of Bridges Over the Tug Fork River,” Oct. 27. For more information and to register for the Oct. 27–28 virtual event, click here.

Jennifer can be reached at

This entry was posted in Ideas on Track on October 01, 2020