Train carrying crude oil derails in downtown Lynchburg

Richmond Times-Dispatch | April 30, 2014 | Column by Michael Martz

Lynchburg has declared a state of emergency and Richmond has begun to switch to an alternate water supply after a train carrying crude oil derailed today, spilling oil into the James River upstream from Richmond's primary water supply.

Diana Saunders A train derailed and caught fire in downtown Lynchburg on Wednesday. Must credit Diana Saunders/submitted photo

A CSX train laden with fuel oil derailed near downtown Lynchburg at 2 p.m., according to LuAnn Hunt, a spokeswoman for the city. Three to four of the tanker cars breached and caught fire, she said.

"There is some spillage in the river of crude oil," Hunt said.

Robert C. Steidel, Richmond director of public utilities, said the city is making plans to tap the old Kanawha Canal system at Tuckahoe Creek instead of drawing water from the James, the city's primary source of drinking water.

"We are making preparations for going to an alternative water supply," Steidel said.

Henrico and Chesterfield county officials said their water supplies would not be affected.

Chesterfield has physically isolated its supply of drinking water from Richmond, and will provide water service to county residents from its two other water sources, Swift Creek Reservoir and Lake Chesdin.

Henrico officials said they are monitoring the spill and are filling water storage tanks as a precaution, but don’t expect the oil to enter the county’s supply.

“Our intake is very deep in the river, and if it’s crude oil floating down on top, even if it does come, it shouldn’t concern us,” said William Mawyer, the assistant director of the county’s public utilities.

No one was killed or injured in the derailment, but Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne declared a state of emergency and evacuated several blocks of the city's downtown.

Lynchburg firefighters are "allowing the fire to burn itself out," said Hunt, who added that firefighters are preventing the fire from spreading to the other tanker cars.

Hunt advised that anyone in the Lynchburg area with breathing problems to remain inside or stay away from the affected area.

A statement from CSX said "an initial assessment indicated that there was fire impacting approximately three of the cars, and we have been advised by officials that the fire has been extinguished."

The statement continued: "CSX is responding fully, with emergency response personnel, safety and environmental experts, community support teams and other resources on site and on the way."

The train was traveling from Chicago when it derailed approximately 15 rail cars at 2:30 p.m., according to CSX.

"We are committed to fully supporting the emergency responders and other agencies, meeting the needs of the community and protecting the environment," the statement said.

The oil in the James should not pose a threat to drinking water, said John Aulbach, director of the Virginia Department of Health's drinking water office.

The spill is below Lynchburg's drinking water intake, Aulbach said. Also, the fire has removed some of the oil, and cleanup workers are also removing oil, Aulbach said.

The spill is more than 120 miles upriver from the Richmond area, and it will take 3 to 4 days for any oil to reach this region, Aulbach said.

The oil will be well diluted in the rain-swollen James, Aulbach said. If area water treatment plants -- only Richmond and Henrico draw from the James locally -- detect oil, they can shut down for the day or so and relay on stored water until the pulse of oil passes, Aulbach said.

"It's not going to have an impact on our water plants here," Aulbach said.

The only other drinking water intake between Lynchburg and Richmond is for the James River Correctional Center in Goochland, which has similar protective procedures, Aulbach said.

Pat Calvert, the riverkeeper -- or citizen monitor -- for the upper James River, said, "The first report I received from a citizen was that the river's on fire...It would appear a part of the river's on fire."

Speaking on route to Lynchburg, Calvert said he will take water samples and look for fish kills in an effort to gauge the incident's ecological effects, which he said remain to be seen.

Oil will break down and biodegrade over time, but "not without causing some potential harm," said Calvert, who works for the nonprofit James River Association.

The incident is an example of what some critics call "bomb trains" -- trains that carry flammable or toxic cargo.

"We need to start a larger discussion on what is appropriate for us to be transporting by rail," Calvert said.

Dwight Flammia, Virginia's public health toxicologist, said he is not aware of any immediate health problems.

Oil in the water could cause a burning or reddening of the skin that can be treated by washing with soap and water, Flammia said.

He said the thick, black smoke could cause temporary problems such as shortness of breath if anyone breathed it. But, Flammia said, "I think most people were out of harm's way."

A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Adam Thiel, the deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security, is heading to Lynchburg, as is the acting director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

In a statement, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said that after he was informed of the derailment, “the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Department of Fire Programs were instructed to coordinate with local responders and mobilize the resources necessary to respond to this incident."

McAuliffe said he had also spoken with  Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette and offered him "any and all resources he needs to respond to this incident and keep Virginians safe.”

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.