The latest North American oil train crash occurred yesterday, April 30, in the heart of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia. Fourteen wagons of crude oil derailed from a CSX train in the middle of the afternoon. The train was pulling 105 crude oil wagons.

A city spokeswoman said three or four wagons caught fire. The burning wagons spilled their loads into the James River. The surface of the river was on fire from the oil contamination. A portion of the city center was evacuated. The river bank where the rail line is located has been saturated by recent rains.

Watch a stunning, overhead video view of the crash site here.

The James River flows eastward into Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. The bay separates the states of Virginia and Maryland. It is rich in marine life and a recreation mecca. Along the way, the river flows through Richmond, the Virginia state capital. It is 200 km east of Lynchburg.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Richmond officials are preparing to switch the city’s water supply away from the James River. Officials are placing booms on the flooded river to contain oil. [Update: The Roanoke Times reports on May 2 that 20,000-25,000 gallons of crude oil escaped into the river.]

Fred Millar is an Arlington County-based consultant on hazardous materials safety; the Times-Dispatch reports he has warned Virginia officials of potential dangers from the transport of crude oil across the state. “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,” he said.

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

Trip Pollard, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, says 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” he said.

The outgoing chairperson of the National Safety Transportation Board, Deborah Hersman, told the Times-Dispatch, “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.”

Bakken oil

CSX says the train originated in Chicago. That likely means it was transporting the highly volatile oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota and Saskatchewan. But the exact details of the cargo have not been reported.

The volatility of Bakken oil is a highly sensitive topic because of possible criminal or financial liability for the oil train explosions that have been occurring, particularly last year in La Mégantic, Quebec, and because of the steep cost of retrofitting railway oil wagons to a higher safety standard or replacing them altogether.

Most oil companies and shippers in North Dakota are refusing to share information with the U.S. Department of Transportation about the exact chemical makeup and characteristics of the oil they extract. And they are balking at improving the safety of their oil tanker fleets.

Last week, the government of Canada created new regulations requiring oil shippers and railways to improve crash resistance on older tanker cars in the next three years. But because of the busy, cross-border traffic of oil by rail between the U.S. and Canada, it’s not clear what the consequences would be for rail transport and safety in Canada if a similar regulation is not legislated in the U.S.

It’s hard to imagine that governments and industry overseeing surging oil train traffic in North America that is earning fabulous profits would institute a complex system of sorting newer from older railway wagons for the purpose of cross-border movement. Will Canadian railway regulations by a fossil fuel-friendly government in Ottawa prevail over a recalcitrant oil industry?

U.S. railways say they want improvements to the fleets. As in Canada, they don’t own most of the oil tanker cars that they move.

Oil and chemical disasters in the Virginias

Lynchburg is a city of 75,000 that sits in the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains. (See map of Virginia and West Virginia.)

A major environmental emergency occurred in Charleston, West Virginia on January 9 of this year when 5,000 gallons of a toxic chemical used in coal processing, MCHM, or 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, leaked from a storage tank into the Elk River. A detailed report on that story is here: “They poisoned the river for a ‘clean coal’ lie,” by Trish Kahle.

Within days of the disaster, state officials in West Virginia began issuing confusing guidelines on whether to drink the water from the Elk River. Eventually, a ban was formally lifted, but many residents in Charleston and elsewhere along the river say that chemical odours persist and they remain fearful to drink municipal water.

A report published by West Virginia’s Downstream Strategies in February found that there are 62 facilities along the Elk River that are “potential significant contaminant sources” (PSCSs) — facilities that, if they experience a spill, would contaminate the Elk River’s water supply.

In 1998, a train loaded with chemicals derailed in Lynchburg and sparked a huge fire that forced the evacuation of the downtown.

Roger Annis

Roger Annis

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) and its Vancouver affiliate, Haiti Solidarity BC. He has visited Haiti in August 2007 and June 2011. He is a frequent writer and...