By Alex Rohr
The environmental effects of oil spilled into the James River after a CSX train derailed in downtown Lynchburg on Wednesday are unknown and under investigation, officials say.
Just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, the train carrying crude oil from Chicago on its way to Yorktown crashed, knocking three tankers into the river. Fire following an explosion extended into the river via the leaking oil.
While officials do not know how much crude oil spilled into the river, about 50,000 gallons from the tanks are missing, according to City Communications and Marketing Director JoAnn Martin.
Speaking by phone from his shop, River Road Jet Boats, across the James from the wreck in Amherst County, Mason Basten said he watched the oil boil on top of the water.
“It sounded like a super-size deep fryer just going at it,” Basten said.
Watching the oil sweep downstream around 3 p.m., he was immediately concerned about the impact.
“I think we have a big damn mess, and hopefully this won’t be an environmental disaster,” Basten said.
While the oil was contained by booms in late afternoon, some had already been swept down river by a high, swift current.
At the time of the incident, the river level was forecast to be around 13 feet, up from between six and seven on Tuesday.
“The river is very high because there’s been so much rain. Whatever’s in the river is washing down river very quickly,” said Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, late Wednesday afternoon.
Hayden, speaking from Richmond shortly after talking with a DEQ representative at the scene, said the swift water would make some of the oil released early on difficult to clean up.
The DEQ did not yet know the extent of the damage Wednesday, but Hayden said the spill would more likely affect what’s on the side of the river than what’s in it because oil floats, making it “a little bit easier to clean up.”
“If it gets along the banks of the river and coats the sides of the river or vegetation on the side of the river that could be a concern,” Hayden said. “We don’t know if that’s happened.”
The substance in this case is different than the coal ash spilled in February in Eden, N.C., because that heavy metal-laden material sinks.
“In general, most effects would be short term because either it’s cleaned up or it’s moved away,” Hayden said.
He said he didn’t know of any specific environmental contamination.
Upper James Riverkeeper Pat Calvert, though, asked for “watchful eyes on the river.” He said anyone who sees fish kills or signs of oil should take pictures and send them to the riverkeepers or DEQ. He insisted, though, that they not enter the water because of the strong current.
The DEQ had a representative of its Lynchburg office on the way to the scene about an hour after the crash.
Hayden said Wednesday that no one had yet been dispatched from Richmond, and the DEQ was providing technical assistance on information on containment and potential environmental affects. Going forward, the DEQ will consult on cleanup.
“We don’t have any indication of problems down river,” Hayden said.
However, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Richmond had switched to an alternate drinking water supply Wednesday afternoon.
“Any time there’s a significant amount of oil or fuel or whatever our immediate concern is for the health of people. We want to make sure nothing will affect people’s drinking water,” Hayden said.
Lynchburg's drinking water was unaffected. The city is pulling from its primary water source, the Pedlar Reservoir in Amherst County, not the river.
Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne, who declared a state of emergency shortly after the derailment, said the area's air quality were tested Wednesday and there were no concerns.
Calvert and Hayden said both organizations will be testing the river water for contamination moving forward.
The derailment follows two similar incidents in late 2013 in which oil tankers derailed and spilled crude near Casselton, N.D., and Aliceville, Ala.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the group tasked with protecting the watershed into which the James River flows, sent a letter in March to a commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard about the dangers of oil traveling by train and boat on and around the watershed.
Last week, the National Department of Transportation Safety Board held a forum titled “Rail Safety: Transportation of Crude Oil and Ethanol.”
“Crude oil and ethanol transportation by rail has seen phenomenal growth in North America over the last decade, altering the way these flammable liquids are transported,” according to the board’s website.
Calvert said without proper protocols something like this is bound to happen again, and is a growing concern across the nation.
“It’s really a contemporary discussion on how to deal with this. I don’t have any clear suggestions at this point, but it’s certainly a continuing concern and one that will be getting much of the attention now and in the future,” Calvert said.
Calvert said this incident should shed light on the safety standards.
“I would never want to see the river that I am tasked with and trying to protect on fire. However, it has been in my mind the last couple months that this [issue] is something that we should really consider. If this needs to be part of the discussion, so be it,” Calvert said.
Calvert, whose downtown Lynchburg office is about 150 yards from the crash, said this incident should touch people across the state.
“This is not isolated to Lynchburg. Follow the CSX rail line all the way up and down the James River for miles and miles into other populated areas, including Richmond city. We need to consider how this could impact not just the water’s health but even closer to home, our families and friends that work in these communities.”
Jessica Pounds and Alicia Petska contributed to this story.