EPA: No big groundwater concerns after Iowa oil train spill, but cleanup continues

230,000 gallons. That's how much crude oil is thought to have poured into floodwaters in northwestern Iowa this past Friday, after an oil train derailed there on its way from Canada to Oklahoma.

Aerial photos from last week show dozens of train cars scattered like Lincoln Logs across the tracks and in the flooded Little Rock River. Those cars have been now cleared away and the track reopened, but cleaning up all that oil will take much longer.

Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer checked in with Joe Davis for a progress update. Davis is an on-scene coordinator for the EPA who's working at the site of the spill.

Comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Tell us about the oil that spilled. It's being described as crude oil coming from the Canadian tar sands area. What does it look like? Is it thick?

Yes, and that's what it is. It's a thick, sticky oil and really anything it touches, it sticks to it readily.

Does that make it tougher to contain and clean up?

Well, it actually makes it a little easier to contain, but cleaning it up can be tricky. It's hard to get it off of surfaces, and so things like debris and plant matter that it gets stuck to have to be picked up and recovered.

I'm curious, how much of the oil has been contained? I mean, how much is still unaccounted for, really?

You know, it's hard to say at this point. That's one of the tasks that the responsible party, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, is working on, is to do a mass-balance calculation. They can probably get a good idea, they do have a good idea about what was released, but it's the part that gets recovered [that] gets tricky.

They know what they can pump up from this contained area, but a lot of this material is stuck on agricultural products, corn and soybeans just adjacent to the river where some material escaped.

I know that water from the Little Rock River, which is the body of water we're talking about, eventually flows into the Missouri. Do you expect the oil not contained to get as far as the Missouri?

No, we really don't think so. We've done a lot of assessment work downstream of the location here, and it's maybe about four, five miles downstream we don't see any more of the material really sticking to trees in the farm areas out there.

Has that all that floodwater complicated the cleanup process, as the river levels go up and down?

Yes, it does. It makes it very difficult to get out and work in these conditions. Putting boats out on the river during flood stage is a difficult task and safety is the main concern out here.

Any concerns about groundwater contamination? I know you're talking about agricultural fields. Any local wells in that area? What about groundwater contamination?

Yeah, there's a couple of residence wells and we've sampled these at the homeowners' request. You know, we really don't think that this spill is likely to impact groundwater. There was just so much water coming down the river that you know, there was a big dilution factor. And the stuff we have contained here on site, we think we'll be able to get that all picked up. So we're anticipating that any kind of impact to groundwater is probably unlikely.

Well, thank you for the update, Joe Davis. I appreciate it.

My pleasure.

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