Fire smolders a 3rd day from W.Va. oil train derailment

AP News
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Posted: Feb 18, 2015 6:09 PM
Fire smolders a 3rd day from W.Va. oil train derailment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A fire sparked by a train derailment in southern West Virginia smoldered for a third day Wednesday, keeping federal and state investigators at bay and leading residents near the site worrying about the long-term water quality of a nearby river.

The fire — sparked when a CSX train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude jumped the tracks Monday in the unincorporated town of Mount Carbon — was 85 percent contained, said state public safety division spokesman Larry Messina.

"There's a few small fires," Messina said. "Until those fires are out and they make sure that site is safe, they're going to keep folks away from that vicinity."

CSX and multiple state and federal agencies are investigating. Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said some preliminary work has been done, including the retrieval of the train's data recorder.

But due to the fire, "we haven't been able to do our physical investigation on site," he said Wednesday.

All but two of the train's 109 cars were tank cars, and 27 of them left the tracks. Nineteen tank cars were involved in the fire, said CSX regional vice president Randy Cheetham.

A road running parallel to the train tracks along one side of the Kanawha River remained closed Wednesday.

The derailment shot fireballs into the sky, leaked oil into a Kanawha River tributary, burned down a house nearby and forced nearby water treatment plans to temporarily shut down.

As of Wednesday evening, crews had removed cars that did not derail and have started to remove derailed cars that were not involved in the fire, according to a joint statement from several agencies that have responded to the derailment. CSX will begin transferring oil from damaged cars to other tanks for removal from the site when conditions become safe, the statement said.

About 500 feet of containment boom have been deployed to lessen the potential environmental impact, the statement said.

Containment trenches also are being dug, said State Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater.

"We need to make sure no crude oil gets into the Kanawha River," Gillenwater said in an email.

Once the rail cars and other debris are removed, soil testing and excavation can begin, she said.

Water treatment systems were brought back online after initial tests showed no oil in them. Residents remain under a boil-water advisory, while bottled water was being distributed at a high school.

Classes at West Virginia University Institute of Technology were canceled for the rest of the week. Students in two residence halls were bused 40 miles to facilities in Beckley.

People living away from the wreckage were allowed to return to their homes Tuesday after damaged electrical lines were repaired.

"We weathered the storm," said retired Montgomery police chief Lawrence Washington. "Every storm in your life isn't in the forecast."

Nancy Holcomb, who lives in Boomer directly across the river from the derailment, was concerned about the possibility of the oil getting into the river.

"We swim in this river," she said. "I don't want to get out in this river now."

West Virginia has seen other fuel disasters in recent years.

On Jan. 23, an overturned tanker truck spilled nearly 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel into a tributary of the Greenbrier River near Lewisburg.

In December 2012, a natural gas transmission pipe ruptured and exploded in Sissonville about 40 miles to the northwest, destroying four homes and melting the asphalt on a section of Interstate 77. No one was killed.

The tap water concerns that followed the derailment brought reminders of a January 2014 chemical spill along the Elk River in Charleston 30 miles to the north. That spill got into West Virginia American Water's Charleston filtration plant, prompting a tap water ban for 300,000 residents for several days until the system was flushed out.

"Obvious we've had experiences with water in the past," said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

West Virginia's rail system contains 2,401 miles of track, including 1,113 miles of CSX track and 801 miles of Norfolk Southern track, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Chances are, state residents live close enough to hear a train's whistle.

"Why do people stay after things like this happen?" Washington said. "This is home. There's a lot that goes into this community. I know a lot of people say it's bad, but there's good people here."