Citico Creek oil spill was result of contractor pumping fuel directly into creek

Citico Creek oil spill was result of contractor pumping fuel directly into creek

Norfolk Southern fined nearly $60,000 for January diesel spill

November 15th, 2018 by Judy Walton and Mark Pace in Local Regional News

An environmental cleanup worker deploys booms in Citico Creek after a Jan. 8, 2018, spill leaked thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into the creek and the Tennessee River.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

This story was updated Nov. 15, 2018, at 5:15 p.m. with more information.

A contractor working for Norfolk Southern Railroad illegally pumped diesel fuel directly into Citico Creek early this year while repairing a holding tank at the DeButts Yard, according to an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation that concluded last month.

Norfolk Southern agreed to pay nearly $60,000 in fines and damages for the incident. The action led to thousands of gallons of fuel pouring into the Tennessee River, the temporary closure of a portion of the Tennessee Riverwalk and cleanup by emergency responders, contractors and an environmental cleanup group.

Document: TDEC report

TDEC report on findings of investigation into Citico Creek oil spill.

Norfolk Southern used 120 contract workers to recover and dispose of 14 tons of petroleum-tainted debris and materials, 11,500 gallons of polluted water and around 2,700 gallons of released diesel, according to the order.

Norfolk Southern didn't immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

The spill was discovered Jan. 8 and the Chattanooga Fire Department immediately responded by deploying containment booms to contain the oil as much as possible, fire department spokesman Bruce Garner said at the time.

"The Tennessee River is a water source for the city of Chattanooga. We're mindful of that, as well. We're making every effort to make sure as much of it is contained and cleaned up as possible," Garner said at the time.

The spill was directly upstream from an intake that pulls water from the river to provide drinking water, according to pre-9/11 maps. However, Tennessee American Water personnel assured the public there was no threat to the drinking supply.

The company wouldn't confirm information about the locations of the intakes due to rules established post-9/11 to protect such information, but did say they have the ability to turn off individual intakes in the event an incident like an oil spill occurs.

Norfolk Southern quickly took responsibility for the spill and brought in an environmental cleanup company, HEPACO, to handle the mess. Local emergency responders, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, TDEC and the U.S. Coast Guard also helped in monitoring and cleanup.

The consent order details the extent of the spill, which affected about two-thirds of a mile on Citico Creek and 1.28 miles of the Tennessee River, according to the TDEC report.

The railroad company left booms in place to catch any residual oil and deployed a drone to search for signs that any polluted area had been missed.

In its report to TDEC, Norfolk Southern said the contractor was at fault because workers ignored written instructions on the holding tank repair and discharged contaminants into the creek.

But TDEC said Norfolk Southern was responsible for the pollution. It ordered the company to pay $1,060.20 in damages and a civil penalty of $58,870.

However, the agency said, the company can offset up to 75 percent of the penalty if it wishes to perform a "Supplemental Environmental Project" that will benefit public health or the environment.

The order says the supplemental project must be valued at twice the amount of the offset, or $88,305, and the railroad still will have to pay the remaining $14,718 of the penalty.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.