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Thirty-six railroad cars full of coal went off the tracks early Tuesday and landed in the Great Dismal Swamp, officials said Wednesday.
The 3,600 tons of coal is fine, almost like sand. It went into the water along with some of the cars. It's still being cleaned up.
The derailment occurred about 5 miles west of the intersection of Yadkin and Galberry roads, near the tracks that run parallel to Yadkin Road, said refuge manager Chris Lowie. It's in Chesapeake but not far from the Suffolk border.
"It's literally right in the middle of the swamp," said Lowie.
Chris Lowie/US Fish and Wildlife ServiceThis image provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows coal trains that derailed in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Chesapeake on Wednesday June, 26, 2019.
Norfolk Southern originally told The Virginian-Pilot the accident happened in the Portlock area of Chesapeake. The company finally acknowledged it was "within the boundaries" of the swamp more than 24 hours after the derailment.
In explaining the discrepancy in location, a Norfolk Southern spokesman wrote in an email that "'near Portlock' … accurately conveyed the closest geographic reference point on the railroad system."
The train derailed around 4:20 a.m. Tuesday. No one was injured, but Amtrak service was canceled for Tuesday and Wednesday. It is expected to be back to normal on Thursday.
The cause of the derailment has not been determined and is under investigation, the spokesman, Tom Werner, wrote.
Lowie said he got a call about six hours after the derailment. A Norfolk Southern representative called to talk about access in cleaning up the remnants of the accident. The railroad's permit allows them use of 50 feet of land on either side of the center of the tracks.
"My first thoughts were, 'Holy cow, what a mess,'" Lowie said. "It was 36 cars all piled up like an accordion, most of them sideways and perpendicular to the tracks. Just debris and coal everywhere."
The cleanup will take several weeks and occur in stages, Werner said in an email.
First, Norfolk Southern will remove the damaged rail and coal from the right-of-way, then from the wildlife refuge. That phase will take two to three weeks. The company will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to restore the 2.3 acres affected by the derailment, Werner wrote.
The Federal Railroad Administration said in a statement that it was aware of the derailment and was "monitoring" the company's response.
Norfolk Southern, one of the four largest U.S. railroad companies, reported 191 derailments last year, it’s second-largest number in 10 years. In 2016, it had 192 derailments, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
The Great Dismal Swamp is a National Wildlife Refuge, so there is concern about the coal going into the water, Lowie said. The refuge is home to endangered wildlife such as long-eared bats and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Other resident wildlife, such as deer and bears, could be affected, but the most likely to be directly affected are aquatic species, such as frogs, turtles, snakes and amphibians, Lowie said.
"The coal itself is not a hazardous material," he said "But when it does get in the water and there are heavy metals, it can leach out of the coal and into the water."
Kristen Zeis/StaffWorkers stand near damaged coal cars following a spill that sent over 3,600 tons of coal onto land in the Great Dismal Swamp in Chesapeake on Wednesday, June 26, 2019.
Coal contains toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, chromium and selenium, said Ann Creasy, who works on Hampton Roads community outreach for the Sierra Club's Virginia Chapter.
"I think there is likely more information to be gained about how these particular toxins affect ecosystems and flora and fauna long term from the water," she said. She said that down the line it poses mutation risks.
"It's a fragile area — that makes the impacts of the toxins there even more concerning," she said.
This article first appeared on pilotonline.com
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