Thousands of gallons of oil may have spilled into James after derailment

Posted at 1:50 PM, May 01, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-01 19:09:34-04

LYNCHBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- Railroad workers in Virginia began trying to pull wrecked tank cars out of the James River Thursday as safety officials began trying to figure out why a train full of crude oil jumped the tracks and caught fire in the heart of Lynchburg.

Train River

Thirteen of the 105 cars derailed Wednesday afternoon, and three of those ended up in the James River where it winds past downtown Lynchburg, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jim Southworth told reporters. The train was made up entirely of tank cars full of crude, and about 50,000 gallons of it were unaccounted for after the crash, authorities said Wednesday night.


There were no injuries in the derailment, but the resulting fire sent a pillar of black smoke rising over the city of about 78,000 people and forced the evacuation of much of its downtown for several hours.

Southworth said investigators were just getting to work and will be interviewing the crew Thursday afternoon. In addition, the condition of the track and its bed after heavy rains will be one of the things they will examine, he said -- but he cautioned that no conclusions may be released for more than a year.

"This will be a well-orchestrated industrial ballet," he said.

A pillar of black smoke billowed over downtown Lynchburg.

A pillar of black smoke billowed over downtown Lynchburg.

The amount of oil shipped by rail has increased fourfold since 2005 amid a drilling boom in North Dakota and Canada. Those shipments have been under scrutiny since the derailment and fire that killed 47 people in a small town in Quebec last July, and environmentalists warned against having trains haul oil through downtown Lynchburg in March.

On a Thursday afternoon, the Roberts enjoy a typical lunch at Bottom's up pizza in downtown Richmond.

But what the Short Pump couple say they are having a hard time digesting is what could happen with train on these tracks that sit directly above them.

That's because these tracks are the same ones used by CSX transportation..

The train line is now at the center of a Federal investigation following a derailment in Lynchburg Wednesday in which A train was carrying highly flammable crude oil.

"I'm grateful that nobody was really hurt during the process," said Mike Roberts.

The CSX line runs from Lynchburg through the Richmond area into Hampton roads in highly populated areas near homes and businesses.

"My concern is heightened by the fact that we are close to this. And if something were to happen," said Roberts.

Even though the incident happened hundreds of miles away - the impact on the James river is in question.

Bill Hayden with Virginia's department of Environmental Quality says they're working with other state and Federal agencies to make sure the river is safe for the public.

"The boom on the river at the site…as far as we have observed an oily sheen along the river is several miles downstream," said Bill Hayden, Virginia's department of Equality.

Hayden says DEQ has taken water samples to determine if there are any chemicals in the James and to what extent.

"We're definitely watching that closely to make sure we're on top of it," said Hayden.

Back at Bottom's up pizza, the Roberts family say these train tracks won't keep them away. But it make them more aware.

"No, but I certainly would in the future think about this - what's being transported through here," said Roberts.

Federal regulators are considering tougher rules on transporting crude oil.

In fact, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued an emergency order to all shippers and carriers of crude oil to have safer packaging requirements for hazardous materials.

Depending on the outcome the NTSB's investigation into the train derailment, CSX transportation could face possible fines.