A CSX freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia Wednesday afternoon around 2 p.m. according to local authorities, “causing extensive flames and dense black smoke” to reach into the air.
The City of Lynchburg said that between 12 and 14 crude oil tanker cars derailed next to the James River, though fortunately there have been no reported injuries. The cause “has not been determined” at this time, according to a statement posted on the city’s website.
WSET reporter James Gherardi estimated that the tankers were no more than 100 feet from river.
“You don’t often imagine the James River on fire,” said WSET anchor Len Stevens during his station’s live broadcast.
Amherst County Public Safety Director Gary Roakes confirmed to WSET that “there is product in the river” — meaning crude oil — a that “there are three cars in the river.”
Three or four of the tankers were reported breached, ostensibly the source of the spilled oil.
There were initial reports that downtown residents were being evacuated to a local gym, but when Mr. Roakes was asked about public safety in Lynchburg and the surrounding area, he said “we are not evacuating anyone from Amherst County.”
However, deputy city manager Bonnie Svrcek told the Washington Post that “we have evacuated the downtown area from the river up about 3 or 4 blocks… It looks like there’s a buffer of trees between the river and any buildings, so it doesn’t appear right now any buildings have been affected.”
The city’s communications director, JoAnn Martin, told the Chicago Tribune that 300 people were evacuated from downtown because of smoke.
City authorities said that CSX officials were working to remove a portion of the train that had trapped workers in the Griffin Pipe Foundry.
Officials were initially unable to fight the fire with water because they were not sure what was in the tankers. The disaster site was also too hot for emergency response crews to approach. The tanks appeared to have burned themselves out roughly two hours after the initial derailment.
A recent increase in crude oil tanker traffic has concerned local environmentalists that just this sort of disaster would be more likely to happen.
“These trains are traveling through Lynchburg along the James River through Richmond and on to the York County facility on the York River,” Glen Besa of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club told the Daily Press earlier this month. “We’re concerned that a train derailment could result in an explosion and the loss of life, or an oil spill that could jeopardize our drinking water supplies and the environment.”
CSX was scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday morning in Washington, D.C. regarding the rail company’s proposed expansion of the Virginia Avenue tunnel in downtown D.C. This expansion has been criticized by local residents worried that the same crude oil that spilled in Lynchburg would threaten their neighborhoods near the Capitol building.
Video, courtesy of Instagram user sherifelipe: