Cargo train derailment causes road closure, environmental concerns
Plastic nurdles curdle relationship between residents, railroad
BY SOPHIE GORMAM ORIANI AND HEATHER WRIGHT
“Nurdles” — these small plastic pieces have a silly-sounding name but are causing serious headaches for derailment cleanup efforts along Alternate Route 1.
In the very early hours of Friday, Sept. 23, as Tropical Storm Ophelia was heading into the region, the Hyattsville Police Department (HPD) sent out an emergency text alerting residents to avoid the area near Baltimore Avenue and Decatur Street due to a derailed train. According to an HPD Facebook post, 16 train cars, as well as the locomotive, came off the track, including at least one car that rolled over onto its side.
While no one was injured, the derailed cars damaged the road and tracks, and spilled polyethylene plastic pellets — or nurdles — onto the roadway and surrounding areas. These plastic pellets are the raw material from which plastic products are manufactured — and are a common pollutant of waterways and beaches.
That weekend, the freight company CSX Corp. dispatched cranes to remove train cars from the track, as well as an environmental remediation crew to clean up the nurdle spill — and what was described as a “small fuel spill.” (CSX locomotives primarily use diesel fuel.)
However, a week after the derailment, various community members on the HOPE (Hyattsville Organization for a Positive Environment) listserv posted their concerns after visiting the derailment site. Riverdale Park resident Billy Friebele said he visited the site on Oct. 1. “One of the trains [is] ripped open, and it is still full of pellets,” he noted. “The plastic is already ground into the dirt, spilling into piles, and in the puddles of water. Nothing is being done to prevent them from moving.”
In a follow-up email to the Life & Times, Friebele noted that the area is prone to flooding, and that the crash site is just over the levee that borders the northeast branch of the Anacostia River. “It’s only a matter of time,” Friebele said, “before these plastics wash into the river, affecting not only Hyattsville, but Edmonston, Bladensburg, and all communities downstream.”
Hyattsville Mayor Robert Croslin wrote in an Oct. 2 letter to the community, “CSX is responsible for the clean-up and we are working closely with them and our county, state, and federal partners to ensure the situation is remediated appropriately.”
“CSX’s environmental contractor, Arcadis, is continuing work to clean up the plastic pellets spilled by the derailed cars,” said City Public Information Officer Cindy Zork in an Oct. 6 email. “At our request they have added silt fences to keep the pellets on the site while that work is underway. They have also mitigated the surrounding storm drains to keep the pellets from washing into the Anacostia when it rains.”
Trey Sherard, riverkeeper of the nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeeper, told the Life & Times that silt fencing was a basic remediation strategy that should have been in place early on to contain the nurdles.
“They’ve [CSX] managed to send out trucks to suck out pellets from cars that weren’t tipped over, but for some reason, they haven’t dealt with any of the pellets that are on the ground,” Sherard said during an Oct. 5 phone interview.
The Maryland Department of the Environment, in a report issued Oct. 2, found CSX out of compliance for solid waste dumping on the site, according to Zork.
CSX had not responded to requests for comment, as of press time.
Croslin noted that city staff and council were communicating with CSX’s environmental team, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency.
At a meeting on Oct. 6 with representatives from the city and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, “Arcadis reported that they walked from the site to the Anacostia and found no evidence of ongoing impact to the river,” Zork said. “Conditions today were documented so they could be reviewed after future storms to evaluate the effectiveness of the mitigation efforts.”
As of press time, officials have not announced a timeline for when the repairs and cleanup will be complete — and the cause of the derailment is still under investigation. Croslin’s letter asked residents to continue to avoid the area: “It is an active repair site, and trains are running along the tracks as CSX tests the rails.”
Alternate Route 1 reopened on Oct. 5. A City of Hyattsville Facebook post asked residents to drive slowly and cautiously while cleanup efforts continue. Mitigation efforts and site stabilization will probably continue for weeks, Hal Metzler, the city’s deputy director of public works, told the city council at their Oct. 2 meeting.
“The remaining rail cars are either being repaired to the point of being able to be placed back on the tracks, or dismantled and taken off site for repair. We have heard this process could take a few weeks,” Zork noted. “The clean-up efforts are being coordinated with the repairs so that pellets adjacent to or under the rail cars can be dealt with once the cars are removed.”
About 1,000 derailments occur across the country every year — which translates to about three each day — according to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data. Reasons for derailments include defective or broken railroads, equipment failure, human error, track obstructions or mechanical malfunctions, and weather.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the FRA often conduct investigations of major train derailments, which can take months, or even years, according to a 2023 Washington Post article. At the city council meeting, City Administrator Tracey Douglass said she was not sure who was in charge of this investigation but that she would continue to keep the council informed.
According to the city, residents with questions, comments, or concerns regarding the train derailment should email firstname.lastname@example.org, to keep all the information centrally located.
Sherard said that Anacostia Waterkeeper has drafted an advocacy letter that residents can use and adapt to send to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), who is conducting the oversight of this case. He added that residents concerned about pollution in and around the Anacostia River should send their concerns and relevant photos to email@example.com — or complete the pollution report form on the Anacostia Riverkeeper website, anacostiariverkeeper.org.
“This [derailment] speaks broadly to the dangers inherent to shipping lots of stuff through the backyards of where people live,” Sherard said. “And if that had been something that could blow up, this would have been a much different accident.”