Thursday, May 22, 2014


    April 30, 2014--a chain of 13 railcars derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Six toppled into the adjacent James River, and nearly 25,000 gallons of crude oil poured into Virginia’s founding river in a disastrous display of billowing black smoke and fire.  \ photo
    A pessimist might mourn the loss of a great American river.  An optimist cringes, and turns a calloused eye to the blaze, hoping that those on the forefront will help Virginia awake from the nightmare.  But what does this really mean for Virginia’s River?  And how can such accidents be prevented elsewhere?

    The good news is that the oil being transported from the Bakken shale oil deposit in North Dakota is extremely flammable (not usually a plus), and sparked upon derailment, burning some of the contaminant into the atmosphere.

    What’s more, at the time of the spill the river was swollen from heavy rains in the James River Basin, hopefully dispersing the oil in the otherwise less-voluminous upper portion of the river.
In response to the accident, the Virginia Department of Health has issued a “recreational advisory” against such activities as swimming, wading, kayaking, and paddling in the river, from the origin of the spill in Lynchburg, to the oxbows and tidal reaches of Richmond.

    Due to the high flow of water, oil coursed the more than 100 miles to Richmond as early as May 1.  The state’s capital city is currently relying on a backup supply of drinking water; and Lynchburg’s supply was left unadulterated.

    No one was injured in the derailment, and clean water can still be attained; but the effect of the spill on the river’s diverse fish and wildlife populations will only be told through time.
A number of birds—eagles, osprey, seagulls, herons—count on the James River for sustenance.  Otters, muskrat, and beaver all construct family abodes in the clay banks.  Fish fin its waters, with no place to go.

    Ecologically, the timing of the spill is less-than-ideal.  Spring beckons waves of spawning shad and herring into the freshwater river to spawn and the birds of the riverine ecosystem are feeding chicks in nests.  This coincidence poses a multi-generational threat to the river’s inhabitants.

    Luckily, the James River Association, the James River’s premier confidant and safe keeper, led by Upper James Riverkeeper, Pat Calvert, is taking recovery measures.  Currently, the team is working with herpetologists who will assess the effect of the spill in amphibians of the river, which are effected by even the slightest amount of oil contaminant.

    This local tragedy has directed significant criticism towards the methods of transporting domestic oil.  The CSX line that the derailed train was traveling through Lynchburg follows the James River from its headwaters to its final destination in Yorktown, Virginia.

    Train routes have historically followed riverbeds for their relatively little grade and consequently-easy navigation.  In fact, many of the nation’s largest and most valuable rivers are paralleled by tracks that transport crude oil from the hydraulic fracturing site in North Dakota.  Thus the potential exists for oil spills in rivers across the country. 

    This has stirred the pot on transportation-related issues with conservation groups across the country, who hope to learn from the accident in Lynchburg, and prevent it from occurring on their river.  For as the transportation of crude oil increases in the United States, safety measures and regulations have lagged behind significantly.

    Following the spill in Lynchburg, the United States Department of Transportation presented the White House with a set of stricter guidelines for tank cars for review, to get the ball rolling. 

    Hudson Riverkeeper, Phillip Musegaas, prompted the government to ban all use of puncture prone tanks; and days later the Canadian government instituted a three-year phase-out plan for the DOT-111s that have derailed, caused pollution, and even killed people in Alabama, Quebec, North Dakota, and New Brunswick over the past year.

     Though it is a strong blow to the James River’s ecology, the river system should recover from the spill; for toxic spills are no strangers to its waters.  Still, there will be consequences, and we can only hope that this incident is looked upon as an example and a warning for what can happen as a result of poor transportation regulations.  Those with the time, means, and inspiration, I urge you to care and get involved.  Here’s how:

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