Pulling Rail Cars From Anacostia Could Take a Week
Environmental Groups Express Worry Over Water Quality and Track Conditions

By Joshua Zumbrun and Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Authorities with CSX, the rail operator whose freight train derailed Friday, spilling tons of coal into the Anacostia River, are preparing to clean up the accident, and work could begin as soon as today.

"We're in the process of getting permits to start the actual cleanup work," CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said yesterday. "Once it begins, the hope is that it would take about a week."

On Friday afternoon, a CSX operator failed to secure the brakes properly while moving the cars around the Benning rail yard in Anacostia, CSX Transportation officials have said. Eighty-nine cars coasted more than a quarter-mile before rolling onto a closed span of bridge near the Sousa Bridge that then collapsed. Ten cars derailed, and six tumbled into the river. The bridge span was closed in November 2006 after an inspection revealed structural problems. The cars, which have a capacity of 100 tons of coal, were full when the accident occurred.

"When you mix coal dust with water, there's a chemical reaction that occurs," said Jim Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "We're very concerned that the coal be removed as quickly as possible."

CSX said that testing had not indicated a problem. "Since the beginning we've been actively sampling the water," Sullivan said. "Thus far, testing the pH as the result of coal, the readings have come back neutral." Tests of pH measure the acidity and alkalinity of water, and it's a problem if the levels are too high or too low.

Connolly said his group would do its own water-quality testing.

Other environmentalists seemed more concerned with the state of a railroad infrastructure that would allow such an accident to occur.

"Coal is inert; it might kill some fish, it might be hard to get out of the river, but imagine if it had been a toxic car that had blown up," said Fred Millar, a consultant for Friends of the Earth who has worked extensively on rail issues.

Sullivan said that lifting the cars could stir up decades of pollution and sediment on the river bottom. To prevent the sediment from moving while the cars are raised, CSX plans to install curtains made of impermeable fabric around the work area. The cars will be cut with giant shears, cranes will be used to scoop the coal out of the river and the detritus will be taken away on barges, Sullivan said.

Diving teams examined the riverbed yesterday, he said, and CSX is obtaining permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the D.C. Department of the Environment, the Coast Guard and the National Park Service so that work can begin to remove the cars.

"This illustrates that in general we have a very shaky infrastructure," Millar said. "There was a runaway coal train in D.C., but what if this had been the runaway chlorine car in Las Vegas?" He was referring to an incident in August in Nevada in which a car full of deadly chlorine gas rolled unattended for 20 miles.

The bridge across the Anacostia River has two spans, one of which remains open. Sullivan said that trains are proceeding at very reduced speeds across the open span and that CSX is reviewing the situation.

The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the incident.

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