Criminal investigators are trying to determine whether a Jan. 27 train wreck and chemical spill near Allendale was more than an accident.
Authorities announced a $10,000 reward Wednesday for the arrest and indictment of anyone responsible for the crash, which injured several people and evacuated an industrial plant in a rural section of the county about 90 miles southwest of Columbia.
The announcement provides further evidence that a criminal probe is underway. State officials said last week the Federal Bureau of Investigation had taken charge of the probe, although some said at the time that the inquiry was routine.
A spokeswoman for the FBI was unavailable Wednesday evening and the agency has said nothing about the probe since arriving on the accident scene shortly after the crash.
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But CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay said the national railroad company is assisting federal authorities – and the company wants answers. CSX put up part of the $10,000 reward for the arrest of a suspect in the probe.
“We are certainly interested in finding out what happened,” Seay said.
Last week’s railroad crash occurred when a CSX train ran off the main track and onto a side rail, where another train was parked. The crash split open tanker cars and caused some 19,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid to leak out. Another 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel also spilled. A switch that diverted the train off the main track may have been misaligned.
The area where the trains collided is in the Martin community in rural Allendale County not far from the Savannah River. A conductor and an engineer were injured in the wreck, although they walked away from it. The collision occurred on a side track near the Archroma chemical plant.
The crash has eerie parallels to a tragic train wreck in Graniteville 10 years ago, when a locomotive veered off the main track and smashed into parked rail cars, spilling chlorine. Unlike Graniteville, no one was killed in the Allendale County wreck and authorities say environmenal damage does not appear to be extensive.
Still, Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus says the area was lucky. Railroad cars filled with toxic chemicals can be deadly to communities and need strict regulation to safeguard communities, she said.
“This could have been a lot worse,” said Bonitatibus, whose organization is an environmental group focused on protecting the river that borders South Carolina and Georgia.
A key question now is whether a track switch was misaligned and caused the wreck.
Tom Allen, who heads the state Office of Regulatory Staff’s railroad division, said the track switch in Allendale County was a manual switch. Someone likely would have had to unlock or break the switch box to move the switch.
Allen said his office has not been directly involved in the probe since the FBI and the Federal Railroad Administration began investigating.
“The FRA has taken the lead and I believe they are going through the process of interviewing the train crew and gathering information,” Allen said.