A train derailment spilled some 4,000 gallons of diesel into the West Branch of the Delaware River, New York State environmental officials say, and high water may have helped disperse the fuel, averting a larger tragedy for the nationally renowned trout stream.
"There doesn't appear to be anything more floating downstream than a sheen and some odors," said Matt Franklin, Director of Emergency Management, N.Y. Dept. of Environmental Conservation. "That eventually will float on the surface and evaporate just from the natural wave action, from the sun and from the heat."
Torrential rains apparently washed out a culvert under the train tracks at Deposit, N.Y., causing the Aug. 10 derailment, Franklin said. The rains, which had triggered a state of emergency in the region, pushed the West Branch of the Delaware to the highest flows all year, making the diesel difficult to contain.
"The problem we're finding is the river is moving so fast and so quickly we don't have a good mechanism to control or stop" the diesel spill, Franklin said. "We're addressing it as best we can from the source."
There were no reports of fish kills following the spill. Wildlife officials caught and treated some fuel-covered waterfowl.
While the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway train was carrying cars with sulfuric acid, low-level radioactive soils and non-radioactive contaminated soil, none of those cars derailed or spilled their contents, N.Y. conservation officials said.
Photo courtesy of NY State Police
The watershed advocacy group Friends of the Upper Delaware River has monitored the cleanup work and asks that its members and other river users to report any contamination they see. "We need everybody who lives near or recreates on the river in the coming days and weeks to continue to keep a sharp eye out for injured waterfowl, residual odors, or visible fuel oil slicks particularly in the calmer near-shore eddies and pools," said executive director Jeff Skelding.
"We want to make sure from start to finish that responding agencies are vigilant," Skelding said.
The West Branch is a 12-mile-long tailwater that offers some of the finest angling in the East for wild brown, rainbow and brook trout – along with fertile mayfly, caddis and stonefly hatches. It flows into the mainstem Delaware, where a 73-mile section is a Scenic and Recreational River administered by the National Park Service.
There were reports of fuel odors and sheen some 20 miles south of the derailment. But Skelding, along with some fishing guides on the river, said they had not seen fish kills after the spill.
"You could smell it the first couple days," said Jeff White, manager of the Delaware River Club, which offers guide service and lodging a few miles downstream of the spill. But high water flushed much of the fuel, he said, and the odors are gone.
Tony Ritter, a fishing guide on the river for the past 24 years, is also a councilman for the rivertown of Tusten, N.Y. Ritter blames the railroad company for the spill.
"Our ecosystems are very fragile and this could have been avoided," Ritter said. "The town of Deposit did the right thing and issued a state of emergency" because of the heavy rain. "I don't understand why the train company continued to move. They could have waited 24 hours" and stopped the train to allow engineers to inspect the tracks.
Melanie Boyer, spokeswoman for the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway Corp., said she could not discuss why the train was not stopped due to the state of emergency.
Boyer said the railroad hired an environmental containment service, which is at the spill site working to remove any remaining fuel and contaminated soil. The service is continuing to work with the state and federal environmental officials to set up monitoring sites along the river.
Anyone who sees more fuel in the river, smells diesel odors or observes fish kills or fuel-coated wildlife should contact Friends of the Upper Delaware River at firstname.lastname@example.org and call the National Park Service at 570-729-8251, ext. 2225. No one was injured in the derailment.