Oil Tanker Cars Derail; Fireball Erupts in Downtown Lynchburg, Va.

Fortunately, there were no injuries in the restored, downtown waterfront district in this city of 71,000. Fifteen cars derailed; three exploded into a six-story-high fireball. Oil spilled into the James River, threatening downstream water supplies.

The derailment of the CSX train occurred in a riverfront area that had just seen a transformation, according to Pat Calvert "who monitors the James River's ecology for the nonprofit James River Assn.," writes Paresh Dave.

Calvert said the area near the derailment had undergone a renaissance in recent years, switching from a heavily industrial area to a residential and commercial neighborhood that has embraced the riverfront.

“A great deal of effort has been put into making it into an asset,” he said. The river stretches 350 miles, with the freight rail line along its bank most of the way, Calvert said. [See "A (Freight) Rail Line Runs Through It - Cities Take Notice"].

Reuters reports that 300-350 people were evacuated from the area. It is unclear how much of the estimated 50,000 gallons of missing crude oil spilled into the river as much of had burned off, according to WSET-TV. The oil was so volatile that it remained on fired even in the river. See photo and "drone video and local news broadcast" of incident" showing the 105-rail car, two-locomotive oil unit train, per CSX press release of May 1.

While Lynchburg's water supply will not be affected by the derailment, communities down stream [including state capitol, Richmond] are already taking precautions (to protect their water supplies).

As we've reported here numerous times, conventional oil hauled in rail cars is non-flammable. It is the highly volatile crude from the Bakken formation carried in sub-standard DOT-111 tanker cars that has caused the recent explosions following oil-train derailments, the most tragic being in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec last summer that caused 47 fatalities as well as the total destruction of the downtown in the lake town of 6,000. 

According to the CSX press release, "The train originated in the Bakken shale region in North Dakota and was handed off to CSX at Chicago en route to Yorktown, Va." Wall Street Journal reporters Laura Stevens and Cameron McWhirter write that the oil train terminal in Yorktown, Va. is where oil "can be loaded on barges and shipped north to East Coast refineries, one expert said."

The derailment and explosion did not go unnoticed by other states experiencing heavy oil unit train traffic, such as New York as we noted recently. Nina Golgowski of the Daily News writes, "Eerily, Wednesday's crash comes the same day Governor Cuomo sent a letter [PDF] to the White House urging immediate federal action to protect New York from similar crude oil transportation disasters.

"This is the latest in a series of accidents involving trains transporting crude oil, a startling pattern underscoring the need for action," Cuomo reacted to the Lynchburg derailment on Twitter. "The federal government must overhaul safety regulations. We cannot wait for a tragic disaster in our state to act."

His office stressed that tens of millions of gallons pass along the state's rail corridors each day, despite New York having no refineries.

The Port of Albany is a major destination for crude-by-rail for Bakken crude, similar to Yorktown, Va., in that oil is transferred and barged to refineries from there, though "the city slapped a moratorium on expansion to oil sands from Canada," as noted here.

Golgowski adds that a "recent report [113-pg. PDF] on (New York) State's crude oil transportation safety found that the majority of tank cars used to transport the flammable fuel are outdated."

Full Story: Oil tanker train derails in Lynchburg, Va., triggering fire and spill

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