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After fiery West Virginia train derailment, is oil by rail safe? (+video)

Monday's derailment in West Virginia is the latest in a string of crude oil train mishaps that have resulted in explosions and sometimes fatalities. US shipments of crude by rail have jumped more than 4,000 percent since 2008, fueling calls for tighter safety rules.

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    Twenty-five train cars... abandoned and up in smoke. Officials with no choice but to let the cars burn out.
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Fireballs erupted in West Virginia Monday after an oil train derailed, setting ablaze tank cars full of North Dakota crude and threatening the local water supply.

One derailed oil car went up in flames after hitting a house. Another ended up in the Kanawha River, threatening drinking water. Of the train’s 109 tank cars, about 25 derailed, each loaded with up to 30,000 gallons of oil. The derailment occurred near Mount Carbon, W.Va. as heavy snows began blanketing the south-central portion of the state Monday afternoon. Though no serious injuries were reported, hundreds evacuated as the derailed cars exploded and shot flames into the air. Tank cars were still burning Tuesday afternoon.

"It was a little scary,” David McClung, who lives a half mile uphill from the explosion site, told the Associated Press Monday. Mr. McClung said heat from the blasts could be felt from his home. He even saw one of the explosions send flames bursting 300 feet into the air: “It was like an atomic bomb went off.”

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Monday’s blast comes as the US Department of Transportation and the Obama administration finalize new rules, first proposed last summer, requiring safer tank cars and limiting train speeds. A string of crude by rail catastrophes – like the fiery derailment that rocked Casselton, N.D., last year – has increased public scrutiny on a growing form of transportation.

All told, shipments of crude by rail in the US have increased more than 4,000 percent since 2008, prompting many to call for updated safety standards in the industry. The increasing prevalence of oil-related blasts and derailments is one byproduct of a shale oil boom that has boosted US crude production and pushed down the price of oil around the world.

"The large-scale shipment of crude oil by rail simply didn't exist ten years ago, and our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," Deborah A.P. Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said a year ago when proposing tougher standards.

But those standards have been slow to materialize, as a growing glut of new US oil looks for ways to get to market. With pipeline infrastructure constrained, much of the crude is hitting the rails. Case in point, the oil from Monday’s blast: It was crude from North Dakota’s Bakken shale play, and was headed to an oil depot in Yorktown, Va.

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The White House is reviewing the suite of new oil safety rules. Industry says they're unnecessarily burdensome, while environmentalists contend they don't go far enough to protect the environment and those living near train tracks. Government estimates peg the cost of the new rules – which would require thicker tanks and better brakes – at $3 billion over the next 20 years.

Some in Congress think the administration isn’t moving quickly enough with the new regulations, though. 

“I’ve seen rules time and time again get bogged down in the gears of bureaucracy,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York told reporters in a December conference call, adding that “this rule is too important to suffer the same fate.”

Much of the criticism around oil train safety today revolves around old rail cars. Critics say they’re not safe enough – especially not to handle shale oil from places like the Bakken, which many say is more volatile, meaning derailments are more likely to cause fiery disasters.

But CSX, the rail firm whose train derailed Monday, said the tank cars involved were the newer and supposedly tougher CPC 1232 models – not older model cars many say are too easily punctured in rail mishaps.

Environmentalists say the derailment with new tank cars proves that any kind of oil by rail is too dangerous, and confers too much risk on those who live near railways that ferry crude oil across the US.

“In this West Virginia case, they were all supposedly the latest and greatest – but they punctured and they blew up,” says Matt Krogh, a campaign director at ForestEthics, a Bellingham, Wash. environmental group.

The derailment is the second along the same CSX route in a year. The last train derailed at Lynchburg, Va., and was en route to the same Yorktown, Va. oil refinery as the train involved in Monday’s blast.

The other half of the safety equation is what’s inside the cars.

Critics say the volatility of Bakken crude makes it dangerous cargo. Oil from North Dakota’s Bakken caused the explosive and deadly 2013 catastrophe in Lac-Megantic, Quebec that resulted in 47 fatalities. That disaster prompted calls for crude to be stabilized before shipment by rail.

In December, North Dakota – a state that produces a million barrels of oil a day – approved standards requiring producers to remove flammable natural gas liquids before shipping oil.

“There is now no situation where stabilization of the crude oil will not be occurring,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) of North Dakota said in December.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that US shipments of crude by rail have jumped 400 percent since 2005, citing an NTSB press release from last year. However, the original source data from the Association of American Railroads shows that the increase was much higher – more than 4,000 percent from 2008 levels.]

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