APTOPIX Train Crash South Carolina (copy) (copy)

An aerial view of the site of an early morning train crash Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 between an Amtrak train, bottom right, and a CSX freight train, top left, in Cayce. The Amtrak passenger train slammed into a freight train in the early morning darkness Sunday, killing at least two Amtrak crew members and injuring more than 110 people, authorities said. AP Photo/Jeff Blake

Contractors have begun hosing 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel into a hurriedly dug drainage ditch to clean up the contaminant spilled during the deadly Amtrak train wreck Sunday outside Columbia.

The work could go on for months.

The contractors plan to skim off and sponge up the floating fuel. S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control staffers are monitoring the work and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has inspected it.

“One thing that’s helped with containment is that the oil literally floats on top of water since oil is less dense than water," said Chris Staton, DHEC's emergency response director who was at the site Wednesday.

The fuel spilled from an unmanned CSX freight train after a high speed collision with an Amtrak train carrying 139 passengers in the early morning hours Sunday near Cayce. Two Amtrak employees were killed while hundreds of passengers were injured.

The diesel ran through the ballast rocks below the tracks and pooled alongside them for 200 yards. That many gallons are enough to fill an average above-ground pool.   

After the fuel is skimmed from the ditch, the collected water will be moved to tanks and then disposed. Oil absorbent booms and pads have been placed in strategic locations and are monitored and replaced as needed, said Tim Kelly, DHEC spokesman.

Most of the area around the spill is on public utility lines, so DHEC doesn't expect any immediate pollution to drinking water supplies. There are concerns for long-term groundwater contamination.

"There are likely to be some wells in the area," Kelly said. "Once the emergency phase is over, we will investigate the (fuel) release fully and ensure that the responsible party remediates any impact, including groundwater, as quickly as possible."

Meanwhile, a state lawmaker reacted to the tragedy by introducing legislation Wednesday that would impose penalties on railroads that do not have crash-prevention technology. 

Filed by state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, the bill would require freight and passenger trains to implement what is known as "positive train control" on tracks that cross a public highway, or face monthly fines.

The GPS-based system can automatically slow or stop speeding trains, alert engineers if a train is heading onto the wrong track and take control if human operators are making reckless navigation decisions. Railroads that operate a locomotive that has not been equipped with this technology would be fined $2,500 per locomotive per month, according to the bill's language.

National Safety Transportation Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt has said PTC would have prevented the fatal crash Sunday in Cayce. It was later determined that train signals in the area were not operating Sunday morning because they were being upgraded to install the crash-preventing technology.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.