United States: Mt Carbon oil train disaster leaves millions living in 'blast zone'

February 20, 2015
Oil train crash, Mt Carbon, West Virginia, February 16.

Fires were still smouldering on the morning of February 17 as emergency crews assessed the damage after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded near the Mt Carbon area of Fayette County, West Virginia, the day before.

About 2400 people have been evacuated or displaced by the derailment, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as the fire burned power lines.

Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said the derailed CSX Corp oil train was hauling 109 cars — 107 of which were carrying 125,000 litres each of crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota to a terminal in Yorktown, Virginia.

The West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has previously refused to provide information on the frequency of such shipments, but the McClatchy DC news group estimates that two to five Bakken trains cross West Virginia each week.

It was the second oil train disaster in as many days. The Atlantic reported on February 17 that a 100-car train hauling crude derailed and caught fire in Ontario, Canada, on February 15. The day before that, another train derailed in Alberta, though without any apparent leaks.

Environmentalists and safety advocates say the West Virginia incident highlights an urgent need for significant safety reforms.

So far, the National Transportation Safety Board has focused mainly on the need to update oil-by-rail car safety, particularly older models of the DOT-111 tank car. This is the most common type of tank car, which inspectors say lacks adequate protections in derailments involving hazardous materials.

However, after the February 16 derailment, a CSX spokesperson confirmed that all of the oil tank cars on the derailed train were CPC 1232 models, which Reuters describes as “the newer, supposedly tougher version of the DOT-111 cars”.

Center for Biological Diversity senior scientist Mollie Matteson told commondreams.org that the CPC 1232 is “little better” than its predecessor in incidents involving any speed and has also “proven to be highly vulnerable on impact”.

Furthermore, it is the model that ruptured in the derailment on the same rail line in Lynchburg, Virginia, in April last year.

Echoing those concerns, executive director of ForestEthics Todd Paglia said: “Whether it is explosive Bakken crude or toxic Alberta tar sands, this extreme oil cannot be transported safely by train.

“Twenty-five million Americans live in the blast zone and nearly everyone else lives downstream of an oil train route.”

As the White House works to develop new safety regulations for transporting oil by rail, Paglia says the administration needs “to take a close look” at the derailments in West Virginia and Ontario. “No tank car is safe to carry this dangerous cargo.”

And while politicians often use oil-by-rail accidents as arguments for pipelines, advocates say that such thinking is industry-driven and short-sighted.

“The oil industry actually wants both rail and pipelines, and is lobbying hard for them, as well as whatever other means it can use to move its product to market at the lowest cost to the industry,” Matteson said.

“Unfortunately, it comes at high cost to public safety and the environment, and if that isn't plain from the images of giant fireballs all over the continent, I don't know what is.

“For the shorter term, we do need sturdier cars, and shorter trains, and trains that aren’t going so fast. And we also need safer rail lines that are built for 21st, not 19th, century use.

“We also need to not be transporting highly flammable oil through cities and towns and along sensitive waterways and wildlife habitat.

“But, longer term, we need to be moving away from production, transportation and use of fossil fuels, period — if we want a livable planet, that is.”

[Reprinted from commondreams.org.]

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