By Peggy Mackenzie
A week after the oil train derailment near Mount Carbon in Fayette County, a full-scale federal investigation is underway, stated the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration during a press conference on Feb. 22.
The investigation includes inspecting the damaged tank cars, recovering damaged rails and reviewing maintenance and inspection records. The oil involved in the derailment is being tested by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to determine its gas content, volatility and tank car performance.
Derailment investigations can last for several days to a couple of weeks, said Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. Now that the fires have burned out, federal and state agencies can investigate the wreckage more closely. Feinberg says train camera footage and recorder data indicate that the train did not collide with anything on the tracks, and that the footage is “unremarkable.” The train was traveling at 33 miles per hour; the speed limit is 50.
“There is a long way to go,” said Feinberg, citing a long investigation ahead.
The train was carrying three million gallons of North Dakota Bakken crude oil when it derailed. Twenty-seven of 109 cars derailed, and 15 tankers exploded during a heavy snowstorm on Feb. 16. The derailment explosions shot fireballs into the sky, burned down a house nearby, forced water treatment plants to temporarily shut down, and caused hundreds to be evacuated from their homes.
A small amount of oil was leaked and detected in a Kanawha River tributary, according to Dennis Matlock, on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. Water and air monitoring in the area is continuing, he said, and containment booms have been deployed to lessen the environmental impact. Response teams had recovered 152,000 gallons from tank cars by the following Sunday.
What’s behind these rail incidents? The West Virginia derailment is the second derailment of an oil train along this CSX line in less than a year. In April 2014, a train crashed in Lynchburg, VA, and caught fire, with thousands of gallons of crude spilling into the James River. Meanwhile, an oil train in northern Ontario derailed and caught fire only three days after the West Virginia derailment. These aren’t isolated incidents, triblive.com reports. Since 2006, there have been at least 17 major accidents involving trains carrying crude or ethanol in the U.S. and Canada – including the notorious explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013 that killed 47 people.
While the vast majority of trains don’t derail or spill, reports of train accidents and explosions are piling up. The simplest reason for the uptick in rail train oil accidents is that trains are carrying more crude. The North American oil boom has been underway only a few short years; thanks to advances in drilling technology, both North Dakota and western Canada have seen massive growth in oil production. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. crude now moves by rail because there aren’t enough pipelines to ship all that crude to market.
However, the answer is more complicated. A big factor is that Bakken crude is more volatile, or more combustible, than other oil. According to The Wall Street Journal, it’s the most explosive type compared to oil from 86 other locations worldwide.
Another emerging issue is that the majority of trains carrying crude oil still use DOT-111 tank cars, an older model dating back to the 1960s with serious design flaws. That said, even newer cars aren’t immune from spills. CSX said that the train that erupted and burst into flames in West Virginia was actually newer model CPC 1232, with safety upgrades that the industry had adopted four years ago. A third issue is that some analysts have argued that railroads are pushing their shipments too fast, increasing the risk of accidents. But, as reported by Politico, most recent major accidents have involved trains going slower than 40 mph.
Another overlooked issue is secrecy. Many people who live near railroad lines across the country want to know what trains are carrying, where they’re going, and when they’re coming through. After the West Virginia accident, CSX quietly began rerouting its volatile cargo through 16 Virginia cities and counties, according to Reuters. Railroads argue that only emergency services agencies, like fire departments, need to know that information. Federal right-to-know laws exempt CSX and other shipping companies from having to disclose it. The U.S. Department of Transportation began to rethink that exemption last year, following a string of explosive and deadly oil train accidents. In May, it implemented an emergency rule requiring all rail companies to tell state emergency response agencies when trains carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil would pass through their jurisdiction.
That emergency rule received strong pushback from the railroad industry. The rule went through despite that pushback. But according to the Reuters report on the situation in Virginia, the industry is doing little to inform actual community members that oil trains will be coming through their towns.
Which is safer, pipelines or rails? This has been a pertinent aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline debate, now moot with President Obama’s historic veto on Tuesday. A lot of people have used this data to argue that transporting oil via pipelines is safer than rail, if safety is defined by the frequency of accidents, regardless of how large the accidents are. If, however, massive releases of oil into the environment pose a greater risk to human health, then pipelines are the greater evil. But other factors are at play.
When a pipeline bursts, it can be harder to contain than a leaking oil tanker, which has a finite amount of oil. A pipeline can just keep spilling until the operator shuts down the flow, and will usually continue to gush until it’s empty. Large oil spills pose major, long-term risks to human health and the environment. A rail car traveling at 40 to 50 miles per hour has a larger chance of exploding, a more immediate threat to human life if it happens in a populated area.
As a two-sided argument, according to a blog at ThinkProgress@triblive, this appears to be a stalemate. A third point could be made: that both rail and pipelines pose serious risks to human health, and instead of forcing people to choose between two dangerous options, the focus should be on improving the safety of both modes of transport while transitioning to inherently less sources of energy.
When will our legislators take the lead and push for alternative energy policies? West Virginia’s state leaders have long come under fire for choosing pro-business policies over environmental ones. In fact, state lawmakers recently repealed the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, which required electric utility companies to use alternative and renewable sources. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said lawmakers no longer felt that bill was necessary, given other alternative-energy activities in place in the state.
Some constituents are not convinced.
“It’s just another example of the lack of attention that’s been given to the prevention of chemical disasters in this area,” said Maya Nye, executive director of the West Virginia-based community coalition People Concerned About Chemical Safety, referring to the derailment and fires. “It’s almost annually that we have massive chemical disasters. We’re more used to responding to emergencies than we are at preventing the disasters.”