Applause to the News & Advance Editorial Board for highlighting this critical issue. I further encourage consideration of the state of railroad bridges that are used to haul hazardous materials over and alongside our rivers and through our communities.
Each day, railways under multiple private ownerships carry tankers full of toxic, corrosive and explosive materials such as ethanol, chlorine and sundry chemicals across dozens of James River tributary rivers and creeks and through the hearts of our communities. Many of these bridges were also aqueducts constructed as far back as the early nineteenth century of local materials for the James River & Kanawha Canal. These bridges were designed to hold water so that individual, animal-drawn packet boats could be slowly floated across creeks to carry goods and people. A small handful of these structures is documented in this revealing Waterkeeper Alliance report: https://waterkeeper.org/app/
As just announced by media sources, Lynchburg drinking water is again fully sourced from the Pedlar Reservoir following a recent water line break. It should be mentioned that the James River — as Lynchburg’s designated backup drinking water source — made this safe, alternative source of drinking water a convenient alternative. Other communities, including Richmond and surrounding areas, rely on the James as their primary drinking water source.
Though it may have not made front pages following the April 2014 oil spill and explosion, there was deep concern downstream of Lynchburg in the days that ensued the derailment. Richmond’s own backup source of drinking water had been contaminated by an unrelated sewer discharge. At the same time, planes were watching as the sizeable “slug” of Bakken crude oil made its path toward Richmond’s primary drinking water intake — made evident by a miles-long “sheen” visible on the river’s surface. Airplanes tracked the oil’s path downstream while emergency responders risked life and limb to unsuccessfully deploy oil-containment booms at multiple downstream locations. The James, swollen from days of springtime rains, carried large trees and debris, rendering efforts at boom deployment both dangerous and impossible.
As no fault of their own, our first responders at the time were unprepared with the necessary notification, equipment and training to respond effectively to many aspects of the spill. Most Virginians had no idea that mile-and-a-half long trains of explosive, toxic oil were being carted through Virginia communities weekly — passing our schools, industries, workplaces and homes. In fact, even first responders had little to no knowledge of this threat. Regulatory changes have since improved awareness and training for first responders — not so much for the public, however. Regardless of preparedness, and unfortunately for those in the wake of an explosion of Bakken crude, there is little recommended response except to stand far back and let it burn. Lynchburg was fortunate that April day that chilly, rainy conditions had kept many would-be river users from fishing, floating or recreating on the James. Anglers are often spotted fishing at the precise site where the derailed trains fell.
Hazardous materials still travel by rail daily. But due solely to market-driven change, huge trainloads of Bakken crude have reportedly not traveled the banks of the James for over a year. With a simple shift in global economics, this trend could reverse quickly. Bound for a shipping facility in Yorktown, Virginia, that fracked Bakken crude will then be shipped out to refineries in other states. Virginia has no refinery — leaving Virginians with all the risks and costs and nearly none of the benefits.
It has been said that many have lived without oil but none without water. Clean, dependable drinking water sources are vital to every community’s stability, economy, health and safety. Reasonable protections, preparations and achievable assurances are necessary to safeguard irreplaceable drinking water sources for our communities and families. James River Association remains vigilant toward ensuring that these safeguards are achieved. The health of our communities is reflected in the river to which it drains and of which it is sustained.