Watch CBS News

West Virginia train derailment leaks diesel and oil into one of North America's oldest and federally protected rivers

A train derailment in West Virginia on Wednesday resulted in an "unknown" amount of diesel fuel and oil being released into a portion of one of North America's oldest rivers that's also part of the National Park Service. CSX, a freight train supplier, said the train derailed in Sandstone after it "struck a rockslide."

CSX said in a press release Wednesday that the coal train was empty at the time of the incident, which happened at around 4:51 a.m. All four of the train's locomotives and nine empty coal cars derailed, the company said, citing preliminary information. 

According to West Virginia Emergency Management, it happened about half a mile from the end of a paved road in a "somewhat remote" area.

Derailed CSX Corp freight train in Sandstone
A view of a derailed CSX Corp freight train in Sandstone, West Virginia, March 8, 2023, in this still image obtained from social media video.  Austin Simms/via REUTERS

Three crew members who were in the lead locomotive at the time — a conductor, engineer and engineer trainee — were "evaluated and treated for non-life threatening injuries" after that locomotive caught fire, the company said. CSX said there is no danger to the public and that no hazardous materials were on the train. 

West Virginia Emergency Management said downstream public water systems were notified of what happened and that monitoring for "potential public health impacts" is ongoing. 

West Virginia American Water has been monitoring the water quality and said it has temporarily stopped drawing water from the New River and will "enhance its treatment processes, as necessary." 

"Customers should see no impact to their service as a result of this action. The health and safety of our customers is a priority, and there are currently no drinking water advisories in place because of this incident," the American Water subsidiary said. "...Should the need arise for a drinking water advisory, customers will be notified upon that development."

On Thursday, CSX said that there had been 22 empty coal train cars, all of which have been removed. 

The derailment could potentially impact the surrounding environment. 

"An unknown quantity of diesel fuel and oil spilled from the derailed locomotives and environmental measures will be deployed in the New River for containment," CSX said. 

The New River is considered one of the oldest rivers in North America. According to the National Park Service, it's widely believed that the waterway "has been in its present course for at least 65 million years." It once ran through Central Ohio, Indiana and Illinois before going into the Mississippi, but much of it got diverted about 10,000 years ago when it was impacted by glacial ice, the service said. 

"Another indication of the New River's old age is that it flows across the Appalachian Plateau, not around or from it as other streams," the NPS added. "The river was there before the Appalachians formed—and the mountains are very old." 

When the empty coal train went off the tracks, video shows some of the cars ended up in or along the bank of the New River. That area is part of the 53 miles of the river that's maintained by the National Park Service within the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. 

When oil gets into freshwater bodies, it can cause significant damage depending on the amount involved.

"Oil spills occurring in freshwater bodies are less publicized than spills into the ocean even though freshwater oil spills are more frequent and often more destructive to the environment," the EPA says. "Freshwater bodies are highly sensitive to oil spills and are important to human health and the environment." 

Because the river is a flowing waterway, the impacts would be less severe than had it flowed into standing water, but the EPA says that oil "clings" to plants and can potentially contaminate the animals that rely on those plants. Oil can also disrupt local ecology as it gets trapped within the rocks within the water.

West Virginia Emergency Management said CSX will be responsible for cleanup of the site, as the company owns 12 feet "from the middle of the track to either side." 

"The company is sending a spill response unit that will coordinate with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) on mitigation and remediation efforts," it added, praising the company for its swift initial response.

CSX said Thursday that it's "deployed additional environmental measures" to contain the fuel that could leak as the final train components are removed from the site. And once the final locomotive is removed, rocks and soil that were in contact with the diesel fuel will also be removed, the company said. 

"The safety of our employees and the community is our top priority as we dispatch our teams to assess the situation and develop a plan to completely restore the area," CSX said. "Our team is in close contact with local police and fire officials and we will continue to work closely with them on our recovery efforts."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.