Coal train derails in swamp

A coal train has derailed in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, raising concerns about its wildlife and the fragile peat soil that has accumulated there over the course of centuries.

Chris Lowie, manager of the federal refuge, said 36 of about 100 cars went off the tracks early Tuesday morning. The Norfolk Southern train was carrying a fine, sand-like form of coal that spilled into water-filled ditches along the tracks and into the forested wetland.

"The cars were a pile of metal," Lowie said by phone on Wednesday. "They were accordioned, literally. Most of them were sideways, busted up and tipped over. Coal was everywhere."

Norfolk Southern said in a statement Wednesday that the coal spill "is confined to a relatively small area" adjacent to the tracks and that "there is no impact to any major waterway."

The company said its personnel are on site and co-ordinating the cleanup with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The Federal Railroad Administration said in an email that it's aware of the derailment and "is actively monitoring the railroad's response, recovery and restoration efforts."

The swamp is about 30 miles (48 kilometres) southwest of the city of Norfolk. The rail line cuts across the northern part of the refuge, with the derailment occurring about halfway through the swamp, Lowie said.

There are no public roads for miles, which means cleanup crews are reaching the scene by taking old logging roads.

The Great Dismal Swamp was once an impenetrable morass where explorers vanished and runaway slaves escaped. George Washington, the future U.S. President, kicked off generations of logging there before the swamp became a national wildlife refuge in 1974.

Since then, efforts have been underway to restore it. The derailment's impact remains unclear, Lowie said.

The coal isn't harmful on its own. But its heavy metals could leach out in the swamp's highly acidic water and threaten turtles, snakes, frogs and small fish, Lowie said. They are part of a complex food chain that includes herons and egrets as well as bald eagles and bears. The swamp's endangered species include red-cockaded woodpeckers.

"Norfolk Southern is confident they can clean this up," Lowie said. "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."

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