Virginia oil train fire: why cities are eager for tighter oil transport rules

The oil train derailed and burned near downtown Lynchburg just hours before the Department of Transportation announced it was proposing tighter regulations for transporting oil by train.

Steve Helber/AP
Firefighters and rescue workers work along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James river near downtown in Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014.

The derailing of a crude-oil laden train in Lynchburg, Va. forced the evacuation of hundreds of people from downtown sections of the city Wednesday and stoked already rising concerns about the lack of strict safety standards for oil-lugging trains that in recent years increasingly hurtle through densely-populated areas.

The accident, in which several tank cars erupted in flames, was the second this year for a CSX Corporation-owned train and follows several such accidents last year as US crude oil production, and the number of train-car-loads transported across the US, has risen.

At about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, the oil-bearing train veered off its tracks as it was chugging through Lynchburg, a city of 77,000 people, and lunged toward the James River.

Local officials said the direction of the derailment was fortunate, since it turned the train away from the city, according to The Washington Post. Still, upwards of 300 people had to be evacuated from downtown homes and businesses, and local officials were investigating how much oil had seeped into the river, Reuters reported.

It was not yet known what caused the accident, and CSX Corp. said in a statement that it had initiated an investigation.

The accident in Lynchburg occurred just hours before the US Transportation Department announced it had sent the White House a new list of rules tightening the regulation of oil transport by train. The rules must now go through a vetting process at the White House and are expected to be made public this summer.

But the announcement of some progress on the rules comes amid urgent criticism from environmentalists, as well as residents of the many towns and cities through which such trains zoom, of federal regulators’ long-time failure to act, even after multiple derailments have put the consequences of carrying oil through towns and cities in aging, poorly-managed rail cars on fiery display.

For at least four years now, domestic oil production in the US has been going up, and so too has the number of trains carrying oil across the US. From 2008 through 2014, domestic crude oil production has gone up almost 60 percent. And in 2013, US railroads carried more than 400,000 carloads of oil, up from just 9,500 carloads in 2008, according to the Association of American Railroads.

But with that American oil boom has come – literally – booming trains. Among the multiple such accidents over the last year were derailments in North Dakota and Louisiana, as well as a disaster last July in the town of Lac-Mégantic, in Quebec, in which 47 people died.

Though the federal government, which regulates railroads, issued voluntary regulations for the industry in February, including recommendations for cutting train speeds in urban areas, it stopped short of mandating compliance, and did not include any statement on replacing old cars, called DOT-111s (which have a history of bursting), with new, sturdier ones.

The US has lagged behind Canada in acting on the issue. Last week, Canadian regulators, blistered by the scale of the tragedy in Quebec last summer, issued new standards for oil-bearing trains, including requiring rail companies to update their DOT-111s with a newer model of tank cars over the next three years. It’s expected that the not-yet-released US regulations will follow Canada’s lead.

One center of the fight for more regulation in the US is Albany, N.Y., which lately has become a bona fide hub for oil-bearing trains.

For years now, trains with bellies full of North Dakota crude oil have barreled through the state upstate New York (through cities that include Syracuse, Utica, and Rochester), stopped in Albany, then headed south to East Coast refineries. New York has no refineries of its own, but oil trains headed elsewhere have nevertheless “become almost part of the scenery in upstate New York," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, according to The Albany Times Union.

But as awareness of the industry’s big presence in the state has grown, and as one oil company, Global Partners, has sought to expand its New York route, the trains have fueled public ire over why the DOT hasn’t done more to avert a possible accident. Of special concern is the potential of a spill into the Hudson River or of a wrecked train careening into urban streets, reports the Capital New York website. The state has already seen multiple derailments, none of which caused injuries or spills, but served as warnings of the potential for disaster.

On Wednesday, five New York government agencies released an oil-train safety report that pressed the oil and rail industries to supply them with more information about the nature of their business in New York. The report also reiterated that the burden of regulating oil transport by rail falls to the federal government.

The report, initiated by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in January, was released just hours before the CSX derailment, according to The Albany Times Union. 

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