Coal Spills in the Great Dismal Swamp
The Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, Virginia remains one of the natural wonders of Virginia. It is home to unique plants and animals and was accordingly classified as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1973. Virginians have used the swamp as a logging site for generations. Runaway slaves would seek shelter in the swampy environment. The Great Dismal Swamp has experienced its fair share of history over the years.
However, the modern age of technology and rapid innovation has brought about a conflict between man and nature. Environmentalists fight to preserve the swamp’s allure as a wildlife refuge, while businesses seek to utilize it for financial gains. On Wednesday, June 26th, that conflict was never more apparent. A coal train operating under Norfolk Southern derailed in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The train had about 100 cars total, of which 36 detached. The rail line involved lies along the northern part of the swamp.
The derailment affected an acre or two of swamp in total. Officials are still determining the exact extent of environmental damage caused by the accident. The train was carrying 3,600 tons of coal that was sand-like in nature. That type of coal is not harmful itself. However, the real danger lies within the heavy metals inside the coal. Some metals found within coal include lead, mercury, nickel, tin, and arsenic. If any of these seep into the acidic water of the swamp, then all the local wildlife nearby will be threatened. The Great Dismal Swamp hosts one of the most complex ecosystems in the country; there are 37 species of mammals, 27 species of birds, 50 different kinds of butterflies, and hundreds more types of insects. Thus, environmental damage would throw the whole food chain in disorder.
The threat to wildlife was not the only environmental concern with the derailment. The Great Dismal Swamp contains large amounts of peat soil, which is a carbon-heavy substance composed of an accumulation of partially decomposed twigs, leaves, and roots of plants over many years. When peat soil is damaged, microscopic organisms break it down into carbon dioxide and release it into the atmosphere. There is potential for peat soil to be destroyed as Norfolk Southern begins the clean-up process. Chris Lowie, manager of the national refuge for the Great Dismal Swamp, expressed caution about the upcoming recovery operations. He says, “Norfolk Southern is confident they can clean this up. They’ve had coal spills before. The difference here is the peat soil. You can’t just dig a hole in the ground and fill it back up with dirt and say it’s restored.”
Luckily for all parties involved, the environmental damage caused by the derailment occurred in an isolated area of the Great Dismal Swamp. The coal was dumped into a water-filled ditch not connected to any of the main waterways or canals. So while the wildlife and soil of that ditch face immediate peril, the swamp as a whole was spared from this environmental accident. Lowie states, “Another 250 or more feet and it would have gotten into one of our main ditches, and that wouldn’t have been good. So the damage to wildlife will be very minimal.”
Norfolk Southern has acknowledged the situation and has been on site cleaning up. Their officials have claimed that it will take a few weeks to effectively remove all the dumped coal and derailed train cars from the swamp. Although refuge workers like Lowie clearly want the job to be done right, a lengthy restoration project would cause more harm than good as the chemical toxins from the coal to fester over time.
The Great Dismal Swamp is a landmark of Virginia, and we need to do everything in our power to preserve it. Coal spills like this should not occur. While certain disaster was luckily avoided with this accident, all it takes is one careless mistake for environmental chaos to ensue.
At Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers we have tackled many cases involving railroad accidents in Suffolk, VA. An incident like this could easily inflict harm on people as well as wildlife. If you or a loved one has ever been injured by a railroad accident, give us a call today. We are here ready to answer whatever questions you have.