(This post has been updated.)
A CSX freight train derailed Wednesday afternoon in downtown Lynchburg, spilling rail cars and burning crude into the James River and causing major environmental damage, a city official said.
“The river was on fire,” said deputy city manager Bonnie Svrcek.
Despite the fouled waterway spewing black smoke, evacuations of several businesses and apartments, and the shut down of nearby roads and a bridge, Lynchburg officials considered the city lucky.
“We are very fortunate that the cars that derailed derailed toward the river, instead of toward the city,” said Svrcek, adding that three rail cars fell into the river but no buildings caught fire and no injuries were reported. Virginia environmental and emergency officials were on site, and federal safety officials were en route, she said.
CSX said the train was traveling from Chicago to a destination in Virginia, and that roughly 15 cars derailed, about three of which were engulfed in the blaze.
Svrcek said the cause of the crash remains under investigation.
Several recent accidents in North America have raised concerns about the safety of oil being shipped by rail. A train carrying crude derailed and exploded in a small town in Quebec last summer, killing 47 people. In December, hundreds of people were evacuated after a mile-long train, also carrying crude oil, derailed and exploded in Casselton, N.D.
On Wednesday, ahead of the Lynchburg derailment, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo sent President Obama a letter appealing for stronger regulations and safety measures covering trains carrying growing amounts of crude.
“New York and all the states subject to this crude oil boom are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of derailment, spill, fire, or explosion, as demonstrated by” recent catastrophic incidents, Cuomo wrote.
Charles N. Haas, an environmental engineering professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said some of the crude oil from the train will sink to the river bottom, where it could harm organisms in the sediment within a couple miles.
Some of the the oil components in the water could vaporize, which could be hazardous to first responders and neighboring communities, Haas said. And downstream, water quality should be monitored.
“It could cause taste and odor problems for some of the utilities,” Haas said, adding that checks should be performed for benzene and other chemicals and compounds that are toxic to humans at certain concentrations.
The Lynchburg tracks skirt the James River on the edge of downtown, near several businesses and an old shoe manufacturing company that has been converted into apartments. Officer Paul Cole of the Lynchburg Police Department said those shops and the apartment complex were evacuated as a precaution. The courthouse also was closed, though Cole said it is four blocks from the accident scene at 10th and Commerce streets.
Fire crews responded to the derailment, which occurred about 2 p.m., Svrcek said. The fire was out by nightfall.
The residential evacuation order was rescinded late Wednesday, although some businesses close to the crash site expected to remain closed on Thursday.
Lynchburg is a city of about 75,000 people, more than 100 miles west of Richmond. It’s also where Liberty University is located.
Staff Writer Luz Lazo contributed to this report