By Jay Reeves
ALICEVILLE, ALA.: Environmental regulators promised an aggressive cleanup after a tanker train hauling 2.9 million gallons of crude oil derailed and burned in a west Alabama swamp in early November amid a string of North American oil train crashes.
So why is dark, smelly crude oil still oozing into the water four months later?
The isolated wetland smelled like a garage when a reporter from the Associated Press visited last week, and the charred skeletons of burned trees rose out of water covered with an iridescent sheen and swirling, weathered oil. A snake and a few minnows were some of the few signs of life.
An environmental group now says it has found ominous traces of oil moving downstream along an unnamed tributary toward a big creek and the Tombigbee River, less than 3 miles away. And the mayor of a North Dakota town where a similar crash occurred in December fears ongoing oil pollution problems in his community, too.
As the nation considers new means of transporting fuel over long distances, critics of crude oil trains have cited the Alabama derailment as an example of what can go wrong when tanker cars carrying millions of gallons of so-called Bakken crude leave the tracks. Questions about the effectiveness of the Alabama cleanup come as the National Transportation Safety Board considers tighter rules for the rail transportation of Bakken oil, which is produced mainly by the fracking process in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.
Environmentalist John Wathen, who has conducted tests and monitored the Alabama site for months for Waterkeeper Alliance, said Genesee & Wyoming railroad and regulators did the bare minimum to spruce up an isolated, rural site and left once the tracks were repaired so trains could run again.
“I believe they really thought that because it’s out of sight, out of mind, out in the middle of a swamp, that nobody was going to pay attention,” said Wathen.
Regulators and the company deny any such thing occurred, however.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which oversaw the cleanup, say more than 10,700 gallons of oil were skimmed from the water after the derailment, and workers collected about 203,000 gallons of oil from damaged rail cars using pumps. Another 290 cubic yards of oily dirt was excavated with heavy equipment, or enough to cover a basketball court with soil nearly 2 feet deep.
Yet four months later, officials still say no one knows exactly how much oil was spilled.