By Ralph Vartabedian
The derailments this week of two trains carrying crude oil have raised new questions about the adequacy of federal efforts to improve the safety of moving oil on tank cars from new North American wells to distant refineries.
A 100-car, southbound CSX train derailed Monday in a West Virginia river valley, destroying a home and possibly contaminating the water supply for downriver residents. A thundering fireball rose hundreds of feet above the community amid an intense winter storm.
On Sunday, an eastbound oil train derailed in Ontario, Canada, near the city of Timmins, engulfing seven cars in an intense fire and disrupting passenger service between Toronto and Winnipeg.
The most recent accidents follow a long string of crashes that have occurred amid an exponential increase in the amount of crude being transported by rail, as energy production booms across the U.S. and Canada.
Scrutiny of the rail industry began to intensify after the July 2013 accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in which a train carrying 72 tank cars of crude crashed into the small Canadian town's center and killed 47 people. It was followed by derailments and fires in North Dakota, Alabama, Virginia and elsewhere.
Data compiled by the federal government and the petroleum industry show that there have been more than a dozen derailments of trains carrying either crude or ethanol since 2009, not including several that occurred in Canada.
The West Virginia accident occurred Monday during intense cold and heavy snow near Mount Carbon, where the CSX rail line winds through a narrow valley carved by the Kanawha River about 60 miles southeast of Charleston.
The train consisted of 109 cars carrying oil from North Dakota to Yorktown, Va., CSX said.
"At least one rail car appears to have ruptured and caught fire," a CSX spokesman said. "The derailment has resulted in the precautionary evacuation of nearby communities, and precautionary suspension of operations at the Cedar Grove and Montgomery water treatment plants."
State safety officials said some of the cars had ended up in the river and were burning.
Adena Village, a residential community along the river, was evacuated. One house was destroyed by fire.
The National Transportation Safety Board has increased its focus on oil tanker safety, and environmental groups are calling for tougher controls.
"Back-to-back fiery derailments involving crude oil trains should be an unmistakable wake-up call to our political leaders: Stop these dangerous oil trains and stop them now," said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The U.S. Department of Transportation responded last year, reducing speed limits in urban areas and calling for better brakes and stronger standards on rail tank cars so that they could withstand crashes without rupturing.
But the tank car rule is not expected to be unveiled until later this year, and it could be years before it has a measurable effect on safety, depending on how many of the existing 98,000 tank cars have to be retired or retrofitted.
Brigham McCown, former chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, the federal agency that oversees tank car safety, said government needed to cut the number of derailments by such measures as improving brakes, including the introduction of electronically controlled brakes.
Current air brakes are applied sequentially on each rail car, meaning that it takes more than a minute for all the brakes to be applied on a 100-car oil train, he said.
"There are a lot of technical improvements we could be looking at, and I don't think we are," he said.
McCown said most of the derailments have occurred in extreme weather, when rain has washed out rail beds or when intense cold or heat distorts or weakens steel rails.
(c)2015 the Los Angeles Times