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Oil Train Derailment, Fire, and Spill Shed Light on Lack of Preparation

The derailment of the CSX oil unit train in downtown Lynchburg, Va. on April 30 and subsequent fire and oil spill into the James River caught Lynchburg, Va. officials off-guard, who were unaware of the oil shipments, let alone how to handle crashes.
May 3, 2014, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Until the (Wednesday) accident, Kimball Payne, (the Lynchburg city manager) said, he had no idea crude oil was moving through Lynchburg. He said that typically, more than one train an hour moves through the city. Traditionally, they have carried coal," write Betsy Morris and Laura Stevens.

A similar reaction came from the mayor, reports McClatchy's Curtis Tate. “The city was never formally notified and I don’t believe that we have ever had any discussions of the matter,” Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette said in an interview.

Stevens and Cameron McWhirter wrote on Thursday (and referenced here) that the CSX train, which originated in Chicago, was most likely headed to an oil train terminal in Yorktown, Va. that "began receiving shipments of crude by rail in December." [The destination was confirmed by CSX press release.]

Ironically, "Payne was meeting Wednesday with officials of Lynchburg's five colleges on how to handle emergencies when a big ball of smoke shot up outside the window of city hall."

In many ways, Lynchburg dodged a bullet, he said. Had the cars tipped the other direction and rolled into the city, Mr. Payne said, "it's clear this could have been worse."

More irony on a federal level. Morris and Stevens write that "just hours after the Lynchburg crash, the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a "comprehensive rule-making package" to the White House for review. It said the proposed changes included "options for enhancing tank car standards.". According to The New York Times, the package was not made available to the public.

As noted here last month, Canada took the decisive step of phasing out older DOT-111 cars within three years. Don't expect U.S. regulators to act so fast.

The changes, initiated by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration last fall, drew comments from more than 100,000 people, because they could require a massive phaseout or retrofit of older tank cars. Regulators won't discuss details of the package until they are published in the federal register, which can take months.

Finally, Morris and Stevens note that the CSX train was traveling well below the 40-mph speed limit "in high-risk urban areas" that was a voluntary measure agreed to in February to take effect July 1. It's speed was 24 miles an hour. In addition, they note that the "Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspected the stretch of track through Lynchburg in January."

Full Story:
Published on Friday, May 2, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal - U.S.
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