Marcus Constantino / Reuters

West Virginians start clean up after massive oil train derailment

Fires persist at site of Monday's riverside crash as utility orders residents to boil water before drinking

Residents of a West Virginia county started picking up the pieces Tuesday after an oil tanker train derailment and fire forced more than a hundred people from their homes and threatened water supplies for thousands, raising new alarm among environmental activists over the rail transport of crude oil through their state.

By Tuesday evening, power crews were restoring electricity, water treatment plants were going back online, and most of the local residents were back home. Many people had taken shelter in local schools or hotels near the town of Boomer. Others continued to rely on free bottled water from the water utility. CSX, the rail company involved, issued a statement saying it is working with the Red Cross to provide shelter for some 125 people amid frigid temperatures and a fresh foot of snow.

With fears of oil seeping into the adjacent Kanawha River, water authorities shut off an intake plant near the derailment, disrupting the lives of everyone on the water system near the smoky crash site. After testing on Tuesday found no detectable trace of oil in the river, public health officials and the utility, West Virginia American Water (WVAW), started turning the intake plant back on — but it will be several days before water service returns to normal. 

The crash sent one person to a hospital with breathing trouble, but the blaze resulted in no deaths despite sending a massive fireball over the Kanawha River at about 1:30 p.m. EST, around 30 miles southeast of the state capital, Charleston. 

At least 20 tankers were “involved” in fires, CSX said Tuesday, and state environmental officials and the rail company decided to let the fires burn themselves out. “At this point there are still small fires burning, so responders can’t go down to there,” said Kelley Gillenwater, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “We can’t get to the actual derailment to assess the immediate impact.”

Gillenwater said the DEP remains dedicated to preventing the pollution of water supplies, pointing to its proposal for strong chemical storage safety laws. Her department, however, has nothing to do with overseeing what travels through the state via rail, she said.

According to CSX, the 109-car train was carrying Bakken shale crude oil from North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia. 

“We don’t have the jurisdiction to regulate that transportation,” Gillenwater said, adding that the DEP will be conducting further tests of the river's water and watching out for a telltale "sheen" of oil. 

Gillenwater wasn't certain of who is responsible for environmental safety on the state's railroads, but pointed to the Department of Transportation as the likely authority. The West Virginia DOT web site says it controls the State Rail Authority, which oversees freight rail. The DOT was not available for comment Tuesday night. 

After the fire burns out, DEP officials will examine how much oil has spilled onto the soil and remove contaminated dirt that could pollute groundwater, Gillenwater said. 

West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Montgomery, the site of the water plant shutoff yesterday, canceled classes until Monday, Feb. 23. Students living on campus will be able to stay at the nearby Beckley branch of WVU, the school said Tuesday, adding that it doesn't expect to regain water service at its Montgomery campus for another 72 hours. 

WVAW and the DEP said tests Tuesday showed no detectable levels of oil in the water near intake valves downstream from the spill. But the company had already shut off the system Monday as a precaution. The WVAW has advised residents to boil their water before drinking it after the taps are turned back on. The water restrictions affect about 2,000 people in six different towns, local news channel WVNS reports.

The accident conjures memories of another spill in West Virginia just over a year ago, when 10,000 gallons of a coal processing chemical spilled from a tank along the Elk River, making its way to the waterway — the supply for 300,000 people in and around Charleston. For weeks, emergency management authorities in the state distributed free water to thousands across the region.

Even now, many people in that area report being afraid to drink the water.

“It’s just one thing after another,” said Maria Gunnoe, an environmental activist with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, who cited the Jan. 2014 chemical spill as an example.

Accidents with coal or gas are so common, Gunnoe said, that people don’t notice them much anymore. She blamed what she sees as a complacent and complicit state legislature.

“Everyone will forget this in three months, and our state leaders will continue to facilitate the oil and gas industry and not protect the people,” Gunnoe said.

“I don’t have all the answers. It’s a massive problem,” she added, saying the freight shipments of oil aren’t handled safely. “They go extremely fast and they’re extremely reckless, and all of our state leaders turn a blind eye until something like this happens.”

T. Paige, 66, a musician, photographer and part-time environmental activist who lives near Monday’s derailment, said Tuesday morning that he could still see smoke coming from the accident site. He said the crash made him feel “very, very, very angry.”

“These trains are not regulated enough,” he said. “They should not have been going through here in the snow storm. It’s dangerous. They’re not taking adequate precautions.”

He blamed what he called a close relationship between industry and elected leaders for what he sees as a dangerous attitude toward regulation.

“Democracy is being derailed and this is one of the symptoms.”

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