Environmental Consequences of Oil Train Derailment Unclear

Image: A CSX Corp train continues burning a day after derailing in Mount Carbon, West Virginia

Responders throw oil booms into the Kanawha River near Mount Carbon, West Virginia, Tuesday, February 17, 2015. A CSX Corp train hauling North Dakota crude derailed in West Virginia on Monday, setting a number of cars ablaze, destroying a house and forcing the evacuation of two towns in the second significant oil-train incident in three days. MARCUS CONSTANTINO / Reuters

Wreckage from a derailed oil train smoldered in West Virginia on Tuesday as environmentalists waited to see whether surrounding water and wildlife would be tainted by the train’s cargo of North Dakota crude.

For some in the area, the latest incident also brought on memories of when a coal-cleaning chemical spilled into a nearby river a year ago and shut off drinking water to nearly 300,000 people for several weeks, said Judith Rodd, director of Friends of the Blackwater, an environmental group based in Charleston, West Virginia.

"There is a problem in West Virginia with the drinking water and the closeness of the drinking water to these sources of pollution," she said. "In this case it was a train carrying oil that derailed, exploded and dumped into the Kanawha River."

Latest Oil Train Derailment Sparks Questions Over Safety 1:54

Multiple tests on water samples collected at the derailment site and a water intake system three miles away have come back negative for the presence of crude oil, according to Lawrence Messina, communications director of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. Nevertheless, he said, "we believe that at least some oil got into the water."

First responders saw a sheen of oil on the water, which was burning, he said. In addition, oil has been found trapped on the ice covering Armstrong Creek, the tributary to the Kanawha River at the site of the derailment. However, earlier reports that tank cars fell into Armstrong Creek were in error. "No tankers reached the water," said Shayne Varner, press secretary for West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

West Virginia American Water is in the process of restarting its water treatment plant in Montgomery, after the plant was closed on Monday out of concern about oil in the Kanawha River.

Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said she had heard there were no tankers in the water, but she was still concerned. "I have seen some photos that show them kind of hovering over the creek," she said. "So that makes me think that the crude oil is entering the sediment and the river. I don't see how it couldn't be."

Pictures posted online appear to show the river bank burning, she said. Fumes from the fires resulted in one person being treated for possible respiratory problems. In a statement issued Monday, CSX, the rail company, said that fires around some of the cars will be allowed to burn out, which Messina said could happen as early as Tuesday night.

Train Derailment Sends Oil Tanker Into River in West Virginia 0:56

"We still have a lot of unanswered questions, and I think a ways to go in finding out what happened, how this happened, and what the short-term and long-term consequences may be," Rosser said.

One long-term concern is the potential impact of the spill on endangered freshwater mussels that live in sections of the Kanawha, said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Richland, Vermont. "They are very dependent on clean water, and so this impact combined with other insults to the river that have happened over the years is very concerning," she said.

Mussel beds are not located in the immediate vicinity of the oil train derailment, according to John Schmidt, a biologist at the West Virginia Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But there are mussels downriver and "the staff biologists working here are concerned that oil may adversely affect the mussels and we are monitoring the situation."

Rodd with Friends of the Blackwater noted that oil train derailments are a concern across North America, with similar incidents in Lynchburg, Virginia; Casselton, North Dakota; and Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada in recent years.

"Something needs to be done about how this crude oil is transported," she said. "In West Virginia, we are an energy state. We have coal. We have natural gas. We are used to this extractive industry, but you'd think with all these materials passing through that we would have some better laws to keep it from happening."