Oil Train Disasters Increase Safety Concerns

By Eliza Laubach

A train carrying crude oil derailed and ignited during a snowstorm in West Virginia on Feb. 17, sending a fireball into the sky. The inferno burned down one home and forced residents from three nearby towns to evacuate. At least one of the 25 overturned tankers spilled into a tributary of the nearby Kanawha River.

The train was carrying especially volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to a refinery in Yorktown, Va. The governor called a state of emergency and train operator CSX Transportation offered reimbursements to affected residents. The U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration are investigating the disaster.

Also in February, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality fined CSX $361,000 for another train derailment last year in Lynchburg, Va.

“Since 2008, the number of tanker cars hauling oil has increased 40-fold,” the Associated Press reported in 2014, “and federal records show that’s been accompanied by a dramatic spike in accidental crude releases from tank cars.” At a statewide emergency management conference in March, CSX spoke to how they would prevent accidents, prepare residents and respond when derailments occur.

An analysis by U.S. Department of Transportation predicts an average of 10 crude oil train derailments per year over the next few decades. In March, seven U.S. senators urged the White House to finalize proposed oil tanker car safety regulations, which Congress had mandated be made final by January 2015. North Dakota, where much of the crude oil originates, passed state laws April 1 requiring that the oil be treated with heat or pressure to lessen its explosive nature.

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