Sustained Outrage

Derailed trains

In this image made available by the City of Lynchburg, shows several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil in flames after derailing in downtown Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (AP Photo/City of Lynchburg, LuAnn Hunt)

This week’s huge train derailment, explosion and fire of a crude oil train headed through Lynchburg, Va., is bringing more calls for tougher rules to govern rail transportation related to the nation’s oil-drilling boom.

The New York Times reported that hours after the incident:

… The Transportation Department said that a long-awaited package of rules aimed at improving the safety of oil transport by rail had been sent Wednesday night to the White House for review. The proposed regulations were not made public, but they follow Canada’s announcement of stiffer regulations last week and are expected to include measures requiring transport companies to replace old tank cars with more robust models that are resistant to puncture.

And The Associated Press explained:

Across the state on the same rail line where a train loaded with highly combustible crude oil derailed, a fire chief sees the potential for a nightmare scenario: A blaze his crews don’t have the means to put out, threatening a colonial-era tourist attraction and one of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning …

No one was hurt or killed when a train derailed in Lynchburg, but emergency officials say it underscores the fact that many departments don’t have the resources to deal with such an accident along a busy route for hauling oil from the booming Bakken oil fields in the northern U.S. tier and Canada.

“It definitely raises concerns,” said Williamsburg Fire Chief William Dent. “We have some minimal resources here.”

For West Virginians, it’s important to take a look at this CSX map, which highlights the routes the railroad uses to haul crude oil (I know, it’s not that great a map. But look for the outline of West Virginia, and you’ll see a green dot to the west that is the Marathon refinery in Ashland, Ky., and the CSX route through West Virginia is outlined in yellow as it heads east and southeast):

CSX Crude Routes WV

As CSX notes, hauling crude oil by rail is a growing business:

The United States is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer in the next few years, and CSX Transportation (CSX) is in the best position to serve the major East Coast refineries and terminals.

CSX has the premier route between the Midwest and Northeast. Our Water Level Route between Chicago and Albany has minimal grade and is all double track, allowing CSX to transport your crude oil trains from Chicago to the Hudson River, New York Harbor or Philadelphia market in less than 48 hours.

I asked CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost how often crude-oil trains come through our part of the world, and this is the response I received via e-mail on Thursday:

Across its network, CSX carries about two trains of crude oil per day. That’s up from about one train per day last year. The train involved in yesterday’s derailment had two locomotives and 105 rail cars. One was a buffer of sand, and the rest were crude oil.

Train Derailment

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014.   Virginia state officials were still trying Thursday to determine the environmental impact of the train derailment.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The Times piece mentioned above had some more interesting and important context about this whole issue:

Train traffic carrying crude was relatively rare until four years ago, when oil companies in North Dakota began shipping large quantities of Bakken shale crude out of the state by rail because there was insufficient pipeline capacity to do the job.

Now, much of the production of the Bakken region is sent by rail on trains that can stretch up to a mile long and carry roughly 85,000 barrels of oil.

When a runaway train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded last July in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people, the safety issues surrounding the transportation of crude through populated areas rose in importance for both American and Canadian regulators.

Then, in December, an oil train passing through Casselton, N.D., derailed and exploded, sending flames high into the air and forcing some residents to evacuate. That followed an accident in November, when another oil train derailed in Alabama, spilling crude oil.

Many of the trains are destined for refineries on the East Coast, which have a strong desire to replace expensive imported crude from the Middle East and Africa with the high-quality, and less expensive, crude from North Dakota.

And a recent NPR interview had some telling remarks from Deborah Hersman, outgoing chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board on the subject of why the federal government moves so slow to reform safety practices in cases like this:

Since 2005, both ethanol and crude oil transport in the U.S. have increased by over 440 percent. We didn’t have pipelines there but we do have rail lines. And so those rail lines are essentially now functioning like a moving pipeline. A hundred cars in a train, millions of gallons of crude or ethanol in those trains and they are moving across the country … Well, I would say that all of the entities really are trying to reach consensus, but the challenge is they haven’t reached consensus. And so, in many ways that lack of consensus has paralyzed forward progress. We believe that there needs to be some adult supervision at this point. And the regulator needs to step in and tell people we have a problem and here so we’re going to do.

They’ve done a lot to try to get to voluntary agreements. And, in fact, the railroad industry has taken some voluntary measures; reducing train speeds, more track inspections and committing to a higher standard of tank cars. But we’ve got to get the tank car builders and the petroleum industry and everyone else on board, and take some action.

I think the regulators work very hard to get the best information that they can and make the decisions that they make. I do see rulemaking processes take too long. They need to expedite some activities. Yes, we need to have public comment, we need to provide the opportunity for all sides to be represented, we have to justify what we do based on a good cost-benefit. But there are some situations where they have to fast-track some of these things, and not let these processes, that can take years, play out. We don’t have the time.