Huntington, W.Va. — A 109-car CSX train derailed along the Fayette-Kanawha county line 33 miles southeast of Charleston, W.Va., on Feb. 16. The result was a crude oil spill into the Kanawha River and massive fireballs shooting hundreds of feet high, causing one home to catch fire. About 1,000 people were evacuated from the affected area and two public water intakes on the river were closed.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has placed Fayette and Kanawha counties under a state of emergency. Officials say they have yet to determine the cause of the incident.
Eyewitness Randy Fitzwater told West Virginia’s MetroNews: “I heard this loud noise. It sounded like a jet airplane flying over my house real low … and then I heard an explosion, and I looked out my window and across the river and I could see this big ball of flame. I thought a jet airplane had crashed.”
David McClung said he “felt the heat” of the accident from his home a half mile away from the scene. “It was a little scary. It was like an atomic bomb went off,” he told the Associated Press.
The train was transporting crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota to an oil depot in Yorktown, Va. Federal regulators say this oil is more volatile and dangerous to transport than other types of crude oil.
Back in January 2014, the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration stated that crude oil from the Bakken shale region may be more flammable and dangerous to ship by rail than traditional heavy crude from other regions. The agency came to that conclusion after a four-month study.
Just two days before the latest West Virginia accident, on Feb. 14, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in northern Ontario, Canada, spilling oil and causing a fire. In that incident, 29 of the 100 cars on the train went off the tracks near Timmins, Ontario. An “unknown amount” of oil was spilled.
CSX reported that all the tanker cars in the West Virginia derailment were the new CPC 1232 models. They include safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by some in the industry four years ago and are supposed to be safer than the older DOT-111 tankers. The federal government has been seeking to phase out the DOT tankers because they have been found to be vulnerable to ripping open in an accident or derailment, resulting in fires and explosions.
This is not the first time, however, that the supposedly safer 1232 models have failed to prevent crude oil explosions. Last April, a 105-car CSX crude oil train traveling the same route as the West Virginia train derailed in Lynchburg, Va. Several of the 17 tank cars that went off the track and fell into the James River were 1232 models, including one that spilled about 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude, causing a massive fire.
Earlier, in July 2013, an accident involving a train carrying Bakken crude killed 47 people in the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec.
Just in the last year, crude oil trains have twice derailed in Philadelphia. And in March, a similar event took place near Albany, N.Y. In these heavily populated areas, the results could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, the tank cars in these derailments did not leak or explode.
How many lives will it take before meaningful safety measures are imposed on the transportation of this extremely hazardous commodity?