BUCKSPORT, Maine — The remnants of the late-May train derailment in Bucksport that sent several cars into the Penobscot River have largely been cleaned up.
But questions over what caused the derailment as well as the extent to which the nonhazardous materials that leaked are still present in the local environment will likely take longer to answer.
The four Pan Am Railway cars that derailed on May 25 were emptied of their contents during the last week of May and then prepared for movement off of the site, located along an undeveloped stretch of the Penobscot near the Bucksport-Orrington line.
On Friday, June 1, a crew from Maine Coast Marine used a barge to haul three of the tankers to the company’s facilities across the river in nearby Winterport.
B.J. Grindle, co-owner of the company, said workers were able to take advantage of the buoyancy of the empty, sealed-up tankers. Crews attached cables or ropes to the tankers and then used a tugboat to pull them downriver to the Winterport shipyard terminal. A fourth tanker, which did not go all of the way down the steep embankment to the river, was taken away by rail.
Then on Friday, June 8, staff from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s oil and hazardous materials response division were back at the site collecting sediment samples to test for levels of the synthetic rubber or latex material that leaked from one of the tankers.
Thomas Smith, an oil and hazardous materials responder with DEP, said the department now estimates that 400-500 gallons of the chemical styrene butadiene copolymer escaped from the tanker. The styrene is not considered hazardous, but DEP and biologists will monitor the site for possible effects. That stretch of the Penobscot River harbors several endangered species, including Atlantic salmon and shortnose sturgeon.
Based on the results of the sediment tests, DEP will decide whether to continue testing, Smith said.
Pan Am has so far not publicly discussed what may have caused the derailment, and an investigation by the Federal Railroad Administration could take up to a year to be finalized, an agency spokesman has said. The track was repaired and reopened to freight train service within several days.
One local resident, however, is wondering whether speed may have been a factor.
Ben Pollard, whose property abuts the Pan Am rail lines not far from where the derailment occurred, said the sound the trains typically make while going by his house is ingrained in his memory. But on that Friday evening, he noticed a clear difference.
“I was surprised by how fast the cars were going by, and then I heard the engine throttle up like it was going even faster,” Pollard said.
Pollard said he even mentioned the train’s apparent speed to his wife later that night — long before he learned about the derailment the next day. He said he then contacted the railroad and DEP to let them know what he had heard.