The photo on the James River Association’s Twitter site is entitled “One Displeased Riverkeeper.” In the photo, Pat Calvert, the Upper James Riverkeeper, displays his blue-gloved hands covered in black oil from the James River.
Calvert's Lynchburg, Virginia office sits directly above the site of the April 30, 2014, spill and fire caused when 15 rail cars carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, and six slid into the adjacent James River.
Virginia agencies along with environmentalists are assessing the impacts from the estimated 20,000-25,000 gallons of oil either spilled into the James or burned into the atmosphere during the fire following the accident. No people were injured, and there was no damage to private property – other than the railroad -- along the river.
The Virginia Department of Health has issued a “recreational advisory” for swimming, kayaking, and other paddling activities on the James between Lynchburg and Richmond, though there has been no fishing or boating advisory posted to date.
Water supplies for residents that rely on the James River for drinking water have not been affected because of “operational adjustments to increase storage,” according to the VDH.
But the impacts on wildlife and fish are less certain.
Jamie Brunkow, Lower James Riverkeeper, said that he and others have been surveying the river by air and land to look for effects on wildlife and fish. “So far, we haven’t seen any,” Brunkow said.
“But this spill comes at a terrible time from the perspective of the fish species – especially shad and river herring – that are migrating upriver to spawn.”
Brunkow, along with others from the WaterKeeper Alliance, are documenting the journey of the oil sheen from Lynchburg to below Richmond, which was seen in the oxbow region of the tidal James below Richmond on Thursday, May 1.
The spill of crude oil from Bakkan shale oil deposit in the Midwest adds to growing concern over the increasing amount of oil being transported by rail – as opposed to pipeline – across the United States.
Though the final destination of the oil shipment has not been confirmed, many believe it was destined for a recently converted oil refinery in Yorktown, VA.
Just days before the accident in Lynchburg, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wrote to U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Robert Papp, Jr., requesting that oil spill risks in the Chesapeake Bay be evaluated in light of increased activity at the Yorktown oil transfer station.
The CBF letter dated March 31, 2014, stated that up to 800 trains per year carrying 60,000-65,000 barrels of oil per train are expected at the Virginia facility.
The James River has long been critical to commerce and industry. The James River and Kanawah canal system, built tin the early 1800s to connect Richmond and Ohio waterways, was used to transport people and goods up and down the river, bypassing rapids and flood-stage waterways.
Rail companies – including predecessors to CSX – took over the elevated towpaths in the 1850s to build railroad tracks along the James.
But the James River also has a history of toxic contamination. Chemical plants in Hopewell, Virginia, producing the pesticide kepone were eventually shut down in the mid 1970s, but not before affecting the health of residents and fish and aquatic life in the James River.
Today, more than 200 miles of the James River from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Virginia Beach are under a “fish advisory” that limits the number of fish that can be safely eaten -- due to the presence of PCBs from as yet undetermined sources.
Calvert pointed to toxic spills elsewhere in Virginia and the Bay watershed, including the coal ash spill into the Dan River and recent oil spills in West Virginia. “We are obviously very concerned about the impacts of this incident on the James River,” Calvert said, especially “taken with the other toxic spills that occurred in the region over the past months.”
The James River Association cites studies documenting that 81 percent of toxic chemicals in Virginia are stored in facilities the James River watershed.
“We just hope that the high water and the burn-off of oil has made a difference,” Brunkow said, “but there is so much that we don’t know yet.”
Calvert said that his group is seeking help from herpetologists who can help assess impacts on amphibians from the spill, adding that “amphibians are easily affected by the smallest amounts of oil in the water.”
“So much of my job is about making people aware of the James River,” Calvert said, “but this oil spill is a really unfortunate way to bring attention to the river.”
For Virginia Dept. of Health information:
See James River Association photos here.