Derailment, Fuel Spill

Susan Rosenbaum | March 4, 1999

    By yesterday, the Long Island Rail Road was to have completed the cleanup of more than 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel that spilled onto the tracks and soil near the Montauk station at 8:10 p.m. last Thursday - close enough to Fort Pond to threaten its surrounding wetlands.

     Officials at the State Department of Environmental Conservation, who were notified within an hour of the spill, called it an "accident," the result, in all likelihood, of weather conditions.

     Heavy snow was falling on Montauk at the time, from a late-winter northeaster stalled offshore for nearly two days.

Pierced Fuel Tank

     The train responsible was the 4:10 out of Hunters Point, Queens, due in at Montauk at 7:47. It was maneuvering around the train station, bound west again for Speonk, when the episode occurred.

     A protruding piece of track is thought to have pierced the fuel tank in the train's 50-year-old power unit, which, along with a railroad car, derailed about 1,500 feet west of the station.

     The power unit, in front of the train, resembles a locomotive but houses the current for the train's lights and heat; the locomotive actually    pushes the train from behind.

     Because the spill was so near Fort Pond Bay, the railroad also notified the Coast Guard about it, said Brian Dolan, an L.I.R.R. vice president.

Contaminated Soil

     Mr. Dolan said the power unit and the coach were subsequently "rerailed." Under the supervision of the D.E.C., the railroad's environmental company was called in to remove the contaminated soil.

     About 200 gallons of fuel was recovered in trenches dug specifically to catch it, said Mark Lowery, a D.E.C. spokesman, and close to 300 cubic yards of earth excavated, under and around the tracks, by mid-afternoon Saturday.

     Meanwhile, environmental workers drilled half a dozen test wells to determine if oil was seeping through to the groundwater. The wells, which will be monitored several times a day initially, and for as long as a year, were placed between Fort Pond and the spill, following the groundwater flow, to determine if a plume of contamination develops.

     Four more wells are yet to be dug east and west of the site and through the track ballast.

     The railroad will be required to make monthly reports on the wells' inspections. So far, officials said, they have tested clean.

     Larry Penny, East Hampton Town's natural resources director, was on hand as the wells were dug. "It was a pleasure," he said later, "to see such a good job."

     "We're very environmentally conscious,"said E. Virgil Conway, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the L.I.R.R.'s parent company. "Fortunately, it didn't block the main line."

     Mr. Conway, who was both born and raised in Montauk, said it would be "some time before we add up the expense" of the accident.

Truck To Jersey

     The contaminated soil material was trucked to Montauk's former naval base off Navy Road, stockpiled on a concrete pad, surrounded by an oil-absorbent boom, and covered with plastic.

     Tuesday and yesterday, the soil was loaded into containers for shipping to a Carteret, N.J., company, BioCycle, where "they tell me it becomes asphalt," said Mr. Dolan.

     Dierdre Hands of 71 Navy Road was alarmed by all the activity. She had been hearing the trucks - including a "guzzler" and an 18-wheel vacuum truck, among others - since Saturday. At 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, she said, "my house was shaking, and I looked out and saw a field of lights going up and down Navy Road."

     "There was a tremendous amount of material. I have a young child here, my son Jacob, 41/2. I don't know what's going on here." She said several of the trucks bore the warning, "hazardous waste."

     The railroad intends to investigate the spill, Mr. Dolan said. A committee of engineers, safety experts, and equipment and transportation specialists is expected to take at least a month to come up with a "preliminary cause."

To Seek Cause

     Committee members will inquire into the condition of the track and the equipment, the weather, and the actions of the crew: the locomotive engineer, a conductor in charge of operations, and an assistant conductor.

     Railroad officials declined to identify the crew members.

     The M.T.A., "will be very interested in why this happened," Mr. Dolan said, adding that the Federal Railroad Administration will also review the committee's findings.

     He was unable to estimate the cost of the accident and its cleanup by press time, but stressed that this was the first derailment in Montauk in several years.