Looking out of your bedroom window in the early hours to find not only a major incident unfolding but also a potential environmental disaster is not really what I had planned for yesterday. But then again this is 2020 where plans it seems were made to be broken and the unexpected is quickly becoming the norm. When else for instance could I have realistically imagined myself dealing with the nations press all clamouring for use of a photo snapped on my mobile and having to turn down radio interviews left, right and centre. Sounds like a surrealist fantasy but I kid you not, this was how I spent a good portion of my morning.
The incident in question was the derailing of the regular rail freight service carrying oil, or in this case diesel, from the refineries out west in Pembrokeshire across Wales to Reading. It’s a working that I’ve enjoyed watching and photographing on numerous occasions but at 23:20 on Wednesday, just as the train was approaching Morlais junction, ten of the twenty five wagons derailed causing at least three to catch fire. Fortunately the crew were able to escape without injury but needless to say the potential for more of the 750 tonne cargo to go up in flames was high resulting in around three hundred people being evacuated from nearby homes. Thankfully we live far enough away to have avoided a knock on the door otherwise I would likely have realised what was unfolding a whole lot earlier. It was only a couple of hours later as I was readying for bed and took one final look outside that I first became aware of the hellish scene beyond our curtains. A thick plume of black smoke was rising vertically from the direction of the Loughor, splitting the landscape in two and forming a mushroom cloud above this normally quiet community. At its base angry orange flames were shooting easily thirty to forty foot into the night sky although at this point the details above were still unknown so the cause remained a mystery. It was only thanks to a search of Twitter that the suggestion of a trains involvement was mooted and that was when I shared the photo below.
It was hard to make out details at this distance but we could just about pick out the shape of a locomotive and thanks to the pressurised jet of flame leaping skywards it didn’t take long to figure that this was the well known ‘Murco’ working that we often hear trundling along the estuary on still nights. With details still scant all we could do was watch and by the time I drifted off around three the flames continued to rage.
The morning dawned grey and initially it appeared as if the fire had been extinguished. It wasn’t long though before thick, acrid smoke was once more rising and it would take a full thirty three hours for the fire to be finally extinguished. In that time the top image has appeared in pretty much every news outlet in the country and some from further afield.
With road closures in place there was no opportunity to go and investigate in person but subsequent reports and images showed how fortunate the nearby village of Llangennech had been. Had the train derailed a mile or so back along its route there would have been numerous houses within touching distance and the consequences far more serious. It was only with a change in wind direction however that the potential environmental impacts begin to occur to us.
For miles around the smell of diesel was thick in the air to such an extent that I woke up this morning with a sore throat which gets worse every time the odours return. Other accounts speak of being able to taste the fuel in overnight rain. And that got me thinking. If enough diesel has escaped to create both these scenarios then what on earth has been let loose into the Loughor estuary. Unfortunately the news is not good. We popped down to the foreshore car park this afternoon and on a rising tide found a thin film of oil coating much of the waters surface. The smell too was fairly horrendous and as I looked across to the feeding Oystercatchers, Shelduck and Little Egrets, I couldn’t help but fear for what the long term impacts are going to be. This area is a site of special scientific interest and together with the adjoining Burry Inlet an internationally important wintering site for birds. Indeed I’ve had most of my best days in the field along its shores so to think of all that being lost is just unimaginable.
Only now are Natural Resources Wales beginning to assess the impacts and limit any further spills, a response that to my mind is far too little, too late. A few booms placed across the Afon Morlais for example would undoubtedly have trapped significant quantities of diesel and could have been done without close proximity to the fire. You only have to look at pollution incidents across Welsh rivers to see similarly poor responses and related enforcement action smacking of an organisation either under resourced or more focussed on report writing than decisive action.
The future then for this fragile ecosystem is uncertain with the true impacts of this incident only going to reveal themselves over the coming weeks and months. For now at least the fire is out but the derailed wagons continue to leak and a long and complex cleanup operation is only just beginning.