ALICEVILLE, Ala. —
“I believe they really thought that because it’s out of sight, out of mind, out in the middle of a swamp, that nobody was going to pay attention,” said Wathen.
Regulators and the company deny any such thing occurred, however.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which oversaw the cleanup, say more than 10,700 gallons of oil were skimmed from the water after the derailment, and workers collected about 203,000 gallons of oil from damaged rail cars using pumps. Another 290 cubic yards of oily dirt was excavated with heavy equipment, or enough to cover a basketball court with soil nearly 2 feet deep.
Yet four months later, officials still say no one knows exactly how much oil was spilled. That’s mainly because an unknown amount of oil burned in a series of explosions and a huge fire that lasted for hours after the crash. Since no one knows how much oil burned, officials also can’t say how much oil may be in the swamp.
About a month after the crash, the head of Alabama’s environmental agency, Lance LeFleur, promised “aggressive recovery operations” in a written assessment for a state oversight commission. He said the oil had been contained in a “timely” manner and none had left the wetlands.
Michael Williams, a spokesman for the Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming, which owns the short-line Alabama & Gulf Coast Railway line where the crash occurred, said the company is still monitoring the site closely and maintaining a system of barriers meant to keep oil from spreading. The work is continuous, he said.
But regulators and the railroad confirm one of Wathen’s worst fears: That environmental agencies let the railroad repair the badly damaged rail bed and lay new tracks before all the spilled oil was removed. Wathen calls the move a mistake that’s behind the continuing seepage of oil into the water.