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Lynchburg Oil Spill Could Signal Problematic Trend

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A CSX train derailment caused a massive fire and an oil spill in Virginia, and the incident may be part of a problematic trend.
AP Photo/Joshua Cruse & Kyle Hotchkiss
A CSX train derailment caused a massive fire and an oil spill in Virginia, and the incident may be part of a problematic trend.

In Lynchburg, crews are still cleaning up along the James River after CSX trains derailed, causing a massive fire and an oil spill—and the accident may be part of a larger trend.

Kevin Book, a director at the D.C.-based consultant ClearView Energy Partners, has crunched the numbers. He says there's a lot more oil now traveling by train.

“What we're talking about is an increase from approximately 2,000 carloads in the first quarter of 2009, going up to more than 114,000 carloads probably by the end of this year, so it's a pretty big change,” Book says.

And with more oil in transit, there have been more accidents. “The more you move, the more incidents you're going to have,” Book says, “but blissfully it appears to be the case right now that the severity of the incidents is falling even as the number is increasing.”

One possible reason is stepped up government oversight. On the same afternoon that more than a dozen cars left the tracks at Lynchburg, the Department of Transportation proposed a new set of rules for crude oil in transit. One big concern: increasing amounts of Bakken crude light oil produced out west by fracking.

“There are some anecdotal reports and some early findings that suggest Bakken crude is indeed more volatile than the crude that his historically traversed America's railways,” Book says.

Three years ago, the Association of American Railroads proposed its own reforms, calling for safer rail cars, but Book says only a quarter of the nation's 80,000 railcars comply. “It takes a certain amount of shop capacity to retrofit existing rail cars to any new standard, and it also takes a certain amount of shop capability to build new, safer rail cars,” Book says.

And there are some who say the new design doesn't do enough to prevent punctures or explosions. That could lead the National Transportation Safety Board to attempt stricter regulation of the cargo itself. Even before the accident at Lynchburg, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent letters to 37 companies asking for specific information about the flash point, gas content and other chemical aspects of the Bakken crude they intend to transport.

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