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Pike Co. Fiscal Court looks to buy air monitoring equipment following train tunnel fire

By: Hillary Thornton, Erika Glover, Matthew Rand Email
By: Hillary Thornton, Erika Glover, Matthew Rand Email
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PIKE Co., Ky. (WYMT) - UPDATE: 05-26-14

Thursday, the Pike County Fiscal Court unanimously moved to apply for a $54,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

County officials say the money would be used to buy equipment that can monitor air quality in emergencies like last month's tunnel fire.

The creosote-laden fumes from the Robinson Creek tunnel fire have been a concern since the flames started April 26th.

The Environmental Protection Agency brought in equipment from Atlanta, Georgia to monitor air quality in the area, which county officials explained took a while to get on site and set up.

County officials say air monitoring equipment of their own would let them respond to similar emergencies faster.

"They can look for explosive levels of combustible gasses, they monitor the amount of oxygen in the air, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and involatile organic compounds," explained Pike County Emergency Management Director Doug Tackett.

Tackett says the small gadgets can detect more than 100 different compounds in all, and connect wirelessly to a central computer.

"So we would have an idea, in parts per million if you will, how much compounds might be in that area, if it's suitable or safe to breathe over an extended period of time," he said.

Tackett says the equipment would be a regional resource, to keep people in Pike and surrounding counties safer.

Tackett says the Robinson Creek tunnel fire is still smoldering, but the fumes at the site are greatly reduced.

He says he expects to hear if the county has been awarded the grant money by early November.

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UPDATE: 05-12-14

Nearly two weeks later a Pike County railroad tunnel is still causing some concern for folks in the Robinson Creek area.

Pike County emergency management officials said the end of the tunnel closest to homes and the school was opened Sunday, but closed back up that evening.

With the tunnel still on fire, public safety is a concern. Pike County Emergency Management Director, Doug Tackett said he is somewhat surprised.

"It had been closed for 11 days and one would have thought that it had gone out, but I guess there's a lot of fuel in there for it still to burn," Tackett said.

At the moment, Tackett said there is not a concern for the air quality in the area.
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New concerns loom as a train tunnel fire continues to burn in Pike County.

On Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency officials kept a close eye on air quality in the Robinson Creek community. Years ago the wood now burning inside was treated with creosote.

Now, as trains lose access to the rails, the burden is being felt by a local coal company.

Crews worked to block the railroad tunnel with dirt, in an attempt to smother the fire that's been burning since Saturday.

Jerry Slone, lives near the tunnel and says, "The smoke has just been awful."

Emergency response officials from the county, state, and federal level are all keeping a close eye on air levels.

Pike County Emergency Management Director, Doug Tackett says, "We are working to make sure the air quality is where it should be and we are not into what would be called alarm limits."

EPA officials are on site and watching levels in communities, schools, and a nearby nursing home.

On-site coordinator for The EPA, Matthew Huyser says, "We want to make sure those areas are adequately protected so we have had constant remote monitoring day and night."

As the tunnel becomes sealed off with dirt, folks in the area say their concern is switching from that heavy smoke to the impact this may have on the local coal economy while the rail line is shut down.

"It is a disaster for this area," says Slone. He says he watched a 90-car train loaded with coal pass by his home on Thursday. Slone says he would've never guessed that would be the last train he'd see there for awhile.

"It is bad for Eastern Kentucky. It is already bad as it is, and we for sure don't need the tunnel shut down...that is a fact," says Slone.

Officials with TECO Coal say their, Premier Elkhorn site, uses the rail line.

Dave Blankenship says, "We are currently exploring other options for shipment." He adds, "We are working every way possible to keep everyone working."

Slone says, "Everyone wants to know...who? why? It didn't start itself. I mean it has just tore the neighborhood up."

EPA officials say they did see increases in various matter in the air, but say it has subsided substantially and is back to what they feel are normal levels for this time of year.

Officials are still investigating the cause of the fire.

CSX Transportation officials say they do not have a timeline for when the tunnel will reopen.

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A fire in a Pike County railroad tunnel is causing some concern for folks in the area. Several schools cancelled class on Monday, as the Robinson Creek area fills with heavy smoke and fumes.

Folks describe the scene Saturday night as terrifying; with loud crashing noises and flames reaching as high as the mountain.

Delmer Ray Bolden says, "You can taste it in your mouth and get to coughing, you try to cough it up...the smoke and everything. Some times you can't hardly see."

Monday morning, firefighters from Shelby Valley worked to extinguish the flames inside the tunnel that stretches 700 feet through the mountain.

Pike County Emergency Management Director, Doug Tackett says, "It is still burning on both ends there, heavy smoke coming out and as the humidity rises it keeps the smoke pushed down around the homes and schools."

Emergency Management officials say the odor is due to the old age of the tunnel and how it was built.

Tackett says, "Timbers within that tunnel were treated with creosote years ago which emits some toxic fumes when burning and if treated with a lot of water it can create some run off and there can be toxic run off from that."

For that reason firefighters did stop battling the flames Monday afternoon.

Tackett says, "The railroad company has a contractor on site to haul in dirt to each side in an attempt to smother it out."

Officials do say at this point air monitoring by environmentalists for carbon monoxide does not show any danger but does say more in depth testing will be done.

"Tomorrow there is going to be some specific monitoring for particular matter and things of that nature," says Tackett.

Investigators say since the fire has been difficult to put out, they have not been able to get inside and determine a cause.

In a statement from CSX officials they say there is significant damage to the tunnel and do not have a timeline as to when the line will reopen.

CSX is working with the state fire marshal's office to determine a cause.


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