At Accident Site, a Bridge Too Far Corroded

Crews have started cleanup work after last week's derailment, in which train cars carrying coal fell into the Anacostia River.
Crews have started cleanup work after last week's derailment, in which train cars carrying coal fell into the Anacostia River. "We were lucky this time," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

As crews began cleanup yesterday of the CSX train that derailed into the Anacostia River last week, questions remained about how the bridge that the train was on deteriorated to such an extent.

"I think we were lucky this time," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who toured the accident site yesterday. "We need to find out why CSX let this bridge get to the point where it was condemned."

The derailment occurred when CSX employees failed to properly secure 89 coal cars at the Benning Rail Yard in Anacostia, company officials said. The cars, which gathered momentum because they were on a sloping track, smashed through a barrier onto a closed rail line and rolled across the damaged span. Eighteen cars crossed the river before the bridge collapsed under the middle of the train. Ten cars derailed, including six cars filled with coal that fell into the river. An estimated 600 tons of coal spilled into the water, CSX spokesman Gary Sease said.

No one was injured in the accident. Three employees are not working pending an investigation, Sease said.

The CSX-owned bridge, which consists of two spans with independent support structures, was rebuilt with its current steel frame in 1972. A routine inspection last November found that the structure had badly corroded, prompting the closing of the bridge for 30 days, CSX Vice President Cindy Sanborn said.

"We have not experienced this level of corrosion on a bridge this age," Sanborn said, adding that CSX had not determined the cause of the corrosion.

CSX was collecting bids to build a replacement structure when the bridge collapsed, Sease said. The bridge is part of a heavily trafficked CSX line that parallels Interstate 95. Thirty to 35 trains cross the bridge in a typical 24-hour period, Sease said.

The bridge was closed again after Friday's derailment, but the other span was reopened 24 hours after the accident. "We are absolutely, 100 percent confident that this open span is okay," Sanborn said.

Norton said she planned to "ask for inspection of every bridge CSX has in water" to ensure that other bridges do not reach this condition.

CSX began work yesterday after receiving approval from the D.C. Department of the Environment. The formal permits must be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Crews will work from 4 a.m. to midnight, pausing for maintenance on the equipment, until the removal is complete.

"I think the first 24 to 48 hours will tell us more clearly if [a] week is a good estimate" until the cleanup is finished, Sease said.

Workers operating a crane mounted on a barge will use giant shears to cut open the trains in the river and scoop out the coal. To keep the operation from sending sediment and coal down the river, thick plastic "turbidity curtains" have been placed in the water.

Initial testing has shown that the coal has had little effect on the river. CSX officials determined that the coal had a low amount of sulfur, an initial concern, and independent testing by the D.C. Department of the Environment, CSX and the Anacostia Watershed Society has shown no significant change in the acidity of the river.

Concerns remain about the disturbance of toxic substances at the bottom of the river. "When massive cars like this hit the riverbed, they can stir up contaminants," said Hamid Karimi, deputy director of the Department of the Environment. Karimi said sediments could contain substances such as insecticides, potentially deadly to wildlife, that have been banned for decades.

Officials are unsure how significant the environmental damage might be. Sediment samples are being tested by CSX, the Department of the Environment and a nationally certified lab, Karimi said.

"Hopefully, in one or two weeks, we can quantify the amount of damage," he said.

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