July 02, 2020

Last of derailed tankers to be recovered

FAIRFIELD — Recovery crews Thursday afternoon began pumping oil from the last of four tanker cars that derailed, rolled into a pond and sank Dec. 8.

The crews, from Guilford Rail System and other contractors, spent most of the day raising the car to the surface and then heating and unloading the more than 20,000 gallons of oil on board.

A Guilford official said crews planned to work through the night, hoping to have the damaged car back on the tracks by this morning.

“The bottom line is it’s done, no oil has spilled, and everybody worked together,” David Fink, the company’s executive vice president, said Thursday evening from his office in North Billerica, Mass.

The four cars, which lay at the end of a freight train, were headed from Bucksport to Sappi Fine Paper’s mill in Skowhegan when they derailed, tumbled down a slight embankment and sank in about 25 feet of water.

They carried a total of 85,000 gallons of industrial heating oil for Sprague Energy of Portsmouth, N.H. None has spilled.

Investigators have determined the accident happened when the cars, traveling at 10 mph along the Kennebec River, struck a broken rail. The tracks separate the pond from the river.

Workers from Sprague Energy, Clean Harbors Environmental Services Inc. of South Portland, Fleet Environmental of Portland, and Construction Divers Inc. of Scarborough have joined Guilford workers in the recovery effort.

In addition, inspectors from the state Department of Environmental Protection, federal Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard are overseeing the work.

A protective barrier known as a boom surrounds the submerged cars.

“The railroad cars are very sound … very well constructed,” Mary James, a DEP oil and hazardous materials specialist, said Thursday.

“You have to bang them up pretty well before you’d get a leak,” she said. “There has been no puncture of the cargo tanks.”

Guilford Rail initially had hoped to have recovered the cars by now. But two days after the accident, part of the embankment beneath a crane gave way, reflecting the delicate and dangerous nature of the project.

The crane remained upright, but crews ceased work until they could reinforce the embankment with a network of beams.

Recovery work resumed Dec. 16 when divers working in near-zero visibility cut the coupling linking the lead car to the others. A pair of 250-ton cranes then raised the car high enough to allow a crew from Clean Harbors to open the top hatch and insert a steam heater.

The next day, workers began pumping the oil to another tanker car on shore. The lead car finally was placed back on the rails early Dec. 20, nearly 11 days after the accident.

Recovery crews spent last week removing the second and third cars from the pond, then took time off for Christmas.

The work resumed earlier this week.

“It’s gone very well,” James said from the scene. “There’s a lot that can go wrong. You have to proceed cautiously, carefully and with a lot of planning.”

Fink said this is the first time Guilford has faced the recovery of submerged cars.

“We’ve got guys that have been doing this for 30 years, and they’ve never dealt with this before,” he said.

He praised the efforts of the workers who have spent most of the past three weeks at the scene.

“This is what these folks are trained to do,” Fink said. “It hasn’t been easy, but these folks are doing a good job.”

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