Oil Train Derailment Sparks Fire, Spill and Calls for Change

May 1, 2014

The National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation of a freight train derailment in Lynchburg that destroyed three oil tanker cars, lifted a plume of black smoke into the sky and spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil into the James River.

No one was killed or injured when more than a dozen CSX tanker cars derailed on Wednesday afternoon, but the resulting fire and spill prompted City Manager Kimball Payne to declare an emergency and temporarily evacuate part of downtown.

The spill also prompted Richmond utility officials to prepare to possibly switch to an alternative source for the city’s drinking water supply, which depends primarily on the James. With the river at flood stage, that isn’t likely, said city officials, who plan to use booms to capture any oil nearing the treatment plant.

The incident also cast a bright light on the rapidly expanding rail transport of crude oil from the Upper Plains through Virginia — and downtown Richmond — to terminals and refineries in the Northeast, raising safety and environmental concerns all along the way.

“It’s difficult to get Virginia to pay attention to this because they don’t think of their being part of the oil patch, but now they are,” said Fred Millar, an Arlington County-based consultant on hazardous materials safety who has warned Virginia officials of potential dangers from the transport of crude oil across the state.

“Virginia is being used as a transportation corridor only,” Millar said. “We get all of the risks and no benefits.”

Trip Pollard, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the rail shipments go through “heavily populated and environmentally sensitive areas in Virginia.”

“We are way behind the curve in assessing the wisdom of such shipments and in preparing to address the potential hazards,” Pollard said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which dispatched a team of investigators to Lynchburg late Wednesday, also has called for greater attention to safety issues related to the boom in rail transport of oil and ethanol from the Upper Plains and Midwest.

“While the soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail (have) been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, who completed her term as chairman of the NTSB last week.

Among other incidents in the U.S. and Canada, 47 people were killed and numerous buildings destroyed in a runaway derailment and fire at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last year.

Speaking at a safety forum last week, Hersman called for immediate steps to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority.

Hersman said there isn’t time to wait for the cumbersome federal rule-making process. “There is a very high risk here that hasn’t been addressed,” she said.

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