By Peggy Mackenzie
During a heavy snowstorm on Monday afternoon, a train hauling Bakkan crude oil derailed in Fayette County causing explosions and fires. At least 27 of the train’s 109 cars veered off the tracks, with as many as 15 of the derailed cars catching fire. The accident sparked massive explosions that prompted the evacuation of two nearby towns.
The train, traveling from North Dakota’s booming oil fields and heading to Yorktown, VA, came off its tracks 33 miles southeast of Charleston alongside Armstrong Creek near WV Rt. 61. The surrounding area was evacuated for a mile and a half radius of the Powelltown Hollow area, which includes Boomer and Adena Village. The entire town of Boomer was evacuated by 4:30 p.m. Monday.
About 1,000 people in all were displaced due to the threat of fire or from power outages caused by the fire, said Lawrence Messina, a West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesperson. A state of emergency was declared by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.
The roar of the blasts could be heard a mile away, and explosions continued even 10 hours after the derailment, with the biggest explosion sending a colossal fireball into the sky around midnight. The heat of the flames, which could be felt from across the river, was so intense that crews couldn’t get close enough to investigate until Tuesday.
The fire that erupted from the derailed train cars destroyed a home. One man was inside at the time. He was able to make it out of the house without serious injuries and was checked out and released for smoke inhalation, as reported by WSAZ Channel 3 News.
“He will be fully compensated and made whole,” said Randy Cheetham, regional vice president at CSX Transportation.
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin says more than 100 people are still not able to return to their homes after being evacuated Monday afternoon. Hundreds of customers also lost electricity because of fires that damaged power poles.
There was speculation that one or two tankers had fallen into Armstrong Creek, a tributary of the Kanawha River, creating the potential for an oil spill threatening the water supply of thousands of local residents. By Wednesday, officials said those initial reports were proved false.
Once the flames had died down, officials began looking into what caused the accident. Messina said it’s not clear what caused the derailment.
“We’ve had some severe winter weather conditions here with significant snowfall, he said. “We don’t know yet whether that’s a factor in this.”
“At this point, the investigation is ongoing, and we do not have a determination on the cause,” said Cheetham. “They will be looking at all factors. They’ll look at the train handling, look at the track, look at the cars, but until they get in there and do their investigation, it’s unwise to make any type of speculation.”
The accident on Monday is the second major derailment in three days across North America’s booming oil-by-rail network, according to motherjones.com. A Canadian National Railway train detailed in northern Ontario, Canada, on Saturday night, also resulting in an inferno and an oil spill. Twenty-nine railway cars in the 100-car train derailed. Seven caught fire.
The derailment in Fayette County occurred on the same CSX freight line as the Apr. 30, 2014, crude oil train derailment in Lynchburg, VA. Thirteen cars derailed in the Lynchburg crash, three of which plunged into the James River. The Roanoke Times reported about 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota spilled. The train that derailed in Lynchburg was also traveling from North Dakota to Yorktown, VA.
Bakken crude is regarded as potentially more flammable than traditional crude. It has a lower flash point – the temperature at which it will catch fire – than most other crudes. It will catch fire at 72 degrees, and vapors may travel a distance before reaching an ignition source, thus posing an increased hazard, from a report in The State Journal.
Since the derailment of a train hauling Bakken crude killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, the type of tankers involved in these accidents has become the subject of intense scrutiny. Both Canada and the United States have called for tougher safety standards, including upgrading the tankers. In mid-January, Canada announced it would take older tankers, known as the “DOT-111,” off the network years sooner than the United States will, putting the two countries at odds over increased safety measures on the deeply integrated system.
CSX has said that the train in last Monday’s accident was not pulling DOT-111 tankers. Instead, the company says it was using a tougher, newer model, the “CPC 1232,” according to Reuters. Washington state regulators are investigating CPC-1232 tankers, after a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude oil across Idaho and Washington in January was found to have leaking cars. Bloomberg.com reports that the CPC-1232 also doesn’t quite live up to the U.S. regulators’ proposed rules to upgrade the system.
According to the Association of American Railroads and the Federal Railroad Administration, the number of carloads of crude shipped on major U.S. railroads skyrocketed from fewer than 10,000 in 2008 to 415,000 last year. The largest concentration of tank cars is coming out of the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where there is limited capacity to move crude using pipelines, historically the industry’s transportation mode of choice.
Thus, much of the oil is being hauled by a fleet of tens of thousands of flawed tank cars that are prone to rupture during derailments that can set off massive fires when the cars that carry more than 30,000 gallons of oil each break open and explode, according to The Charleston Daily Mail.
Efforts are underway to improve the safety of railroad tank cars hauling crude oil, and that has a direct impact on West Virginia. Messina has said the state’s emergency preparedness officials are aware of crude oil shipments through the state.
“State emergency planners do look at the volume, frequency and routes of rail shipments to assess risks,” Messina said. “The Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management plans both generally for hazardous material incidents, regardless of initial cause, and specifically for rail shipment episodes.”
“Safe operating practices are the sum of federal regulations, industry commitments, and additional and distinct CSX initiatives focused on prevention, preparedness and mitigation,” CSX spokeswoman Carla Groleau said. “CSX is actively fulfilling its commitments to further enhance the safe transport of crude oil as agreed between the AAR and USDOT. CSX will continue to promote strong, ongoing and longtenn coordination with federal, state and local officials,” Groleau stated.