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.
In just over a year, North America has seen a dozen serious accidents involving trains that derailed while carrying volatile crude oil. One in Lynchburg, Virginia, sent a fireball into the sky above that city’s downtown and spilled oil into the James River. Experts say many communities in the mid-Atlantic face similar dangers.
The city of Lynchburg grew and prospered for decades because freight moved easily here — first by river and then by rail. Trains were a routine part of city life, but on April 30 that routine was shattered.
A CSX train had derailed, with 17 of its 105 cars going off the tracks. Three fell into the James River, and one ruptured, spilling more than 30,000 gallons of oil. Fire Chief Brad Ferguson studied the situation and concluded the best thing was to let the blaze burn.
“We could see that there was no flame impingement on the cars that were next to it, which made us feel much better that we didn't have a blevy situation. A blevy is an acronym for boiling liquid/expanding vapor explosion. What actually occurs is you have a tank car that’s enclosed, and if a flame gets on it, it heats the contents of that car to the point that it explodes. You can blevy a 55-gallon drum. It looks like an atomic bomb went off.”
What he didn't know at the time was that this train carried crude from the Bakken region in North Dakota. A million barrels of the stuff are drilled each day — most of it heading for refineries on the East and West coasts by rail — and it’s got a reputation for trouble.
“People would expect it to spill, and cause a mess, but they would not expect crude oil to explode the way it has," says Marianne Lavelle. She has covered energy and the environment for more than 20 years. She lives in Arlington and writes for TheDailyClimate.Org. “Bakken crude became a huge part of the North American energy picture almost overnight, and just as quickly it began going on rail."
No foolproof tanker cars
Every day, 800,000 barrels of crude oil are loaded into tank cars designed to carry corn syrup or vegetable oil, but it’s far more dangerous than those cargoes, perhaps because it contains more gases like methane and propane.
“Think of a tank car as moving a can of soda, and if you shake a can of soda and flip the top, what happens to the can, and what happens to the contents?" asks Patricia Reilly, who speaks for the American Association of Railroads — big companies like CSX and Norfolk Southern.
They don't actually own railroad cars. They’re leased, and Reilly says her clients want stronger federal standards for tankers. The U.S. Department of Transportation may soon move on that request, but Cynthia Quarterman, who heads the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, says doing so won’t prevent future accidents like the one that killed 47 people in Quebec last year.
“They are not crash proof. I don't think we're going to see a tank car that can withstand a crash like the one that occurred in Lac Megantic with tank cars going 60 miles per hour. So it’s one piece of the problem," Reilly says.
Speed is another factor. The federal government and the railroads have agreed to a 40-mile-per-hour limit for trains carrying Bakken crude through 46 metropolitan areas, including D.C. and Baltimore, and they'll improve braking methods to try and prevent pile-ups in the event of a crash. They may also keep a closer watch on the rails themselves.
As tons of freight move over this stretch of rail along the James River, tiny cracks develop. Railroads are required to inspect every 30 days, and high-tech equipment will detect the cracks, but no one knows when they'll cause the track to fail, so it’s hard to say how soon it needs to be replaced. Federal Railway Administrator Joe Szabo says it may be necessary to do so more quickly and more often.
“The bar has to be raised. This is a new day in hauling this crude oil, and so this isn't a point now where we're just spilling a little bit of grain or spilling a little bit of coal. We have to reach a point of perfection," Szabo says.
Industry veterans scoff at the notion perfection is possible, but they say it would be safer to ban "unit trains" of at least a hundred cars, each carrying the same flammable cargo. It’s common practice for railroads to intersperse cars carrying gasoline or ethanol with freight that’s not hazardous, and the same could be done with Bakken crude.
Re-routing not always an option
As he toured the accident site in Lynchburg, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe made another suggestion: that trains be routed around populous areas.
“If these rail cars had not tipped off and gone into the river, what if they'd tipped and gone this side, the population center. I just went by a facility and there were hundreds of kids out front," McAuliffe said.
Officials are now calling for Bakken train operators to consider alternate routes.
“Carriers now will use a computer model that weighs 27 factors — the size of communities, the speeds, the conditions of tracks, the conditions of signaling systems, other potential risks along the route, to ensure that the route that is used is the most safe route for moving that product," Szabo says.
Of course many American refineries and ports are on the East Coast in heavily populated areas, so re-routing is often impractical, and industry spokesperson Patricia Reilly says the safest route may actually be through cities.
“To automatically reroute a crude oil train around a less populated area does not guarantee that it’s going to ride on the most sophisticated track that is necessary for moving hazardous materials and crude oil,” Reilly says.
As the nation looks for other ways to prevent accidents, first responders are calling for more help in coping when disaster strikes. Railroads have historically refused to warn communities when hazardous material will be passing through. It’s a matter of national security, they say. We don't want terrorists to target us, but Fred Millar, a community activist from Arlington, says that’s hogwash.
“These are giant, 90-ton tank cars with placards on the side that tell you what’s in them," Millar says. "This is like elephants tip toeing through the tulips. Any half-educated terrorist can sit by the tracks and look at the numbers on the placards and tell you what’s in those cars.”
Community involvement not there
In response to such claims, railroads recently agreed to warn states when they can expect Bakken trains, but Michael Mohler, a fireman in Fairfax County and President of the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association, says first responders are still not getting the information they need.
"I’m an officer on a shift, and I can tell you that I watch rail cars go through our town every single day, and I have no idea what’s going through there, unless it’s placarded, I can see it and sit down and research it," Mohler says. "They're not seeing to it that this is done in a comprehensive way so that fire departments all along the track know exactly what’s coming through."
In some parts of this country, citizens are organizing to push for greater transparency and rail safety, but Mohler doubts people in his Northern Virginia community understand the risk.
“I don't think a lot of them made the connection between what happened in Lynchburg and what could happen in Fairfax County, but since I've been transferred to the town of Clifton, I sit there and watch this rail go through, I am concerned. It crosses over Bull Run, which leaks into the Potomac River, which goes into the Chesapeake Bay," Mohler says.
Public awareness may increase, however, when the White House unveils a package of proposed rail safety regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those should be announced later this year.