Oil Train Burning in Downtown Lynchburg, VA

In what could have been America’s deadliest oil train disaster, over a dozen crude oil tankers in a 100-car train derailed and caught fire in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia.

Police and Homeland Security are evacuating many downtown buildings in a metropolitan area of 77,000.

Due to the delay by the Obama administration of the Keystone XL pipeline, ten oil trains with an average of 100 tankers each carrying 3.35 million gallons of crude oil leave North Dakota each day traveling to southern refineries.

The City of Lynchburg’s website posted that the fire department was on the scene and urged motorists and pedestrians to avoid the area. It tweeted that the thirteen or fourteen tanker cars had derailed and that three or four of them were breached and on fire.

Extensive flames and smoke covered the area next to the James River, but there have been no injuries reported at this time according to the city’s spokesperson. According to the city CSX, the operator of the train, is trying to remove a portion of the train that is blocking an unknown number of workers from leaving Griffin Pipe Foundry located in the lower basin below the train tracks.

“We're used to kind of bangs and booms,” said Gerald McComas, a security officer at a foundry up-river from the derailment site. “My first thought was it sounded like one of the guys started a motorcycle and then I realized, wait a minute, no... that was more of a boom. We walked outside and there was the smoke rolling in.”

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Adam Thiel was dispatched to the site to provide officials with updates on the situation.

Oil train accidents were the topic of National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman last week at a two-day safety forum in Washington. Hersman said the Obama administration needed to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority. On April 25th Hersman became the new head of the National Safety Council.

Hersman said at the meeting that the Transportation Department was in the midst of drafting regulations to toughen standards for tank cars used to transport crude oil and ethanol as well as other steps to prevent or mitigate accidents. However, she added there isn't time to wait for the cumbersome federal rule-making process — which often takes many years to complete — to run its normal course. "We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," she told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the rail transport of oil and ethanol. "There is a very high risk here that hasn't been addressed."

American oil production since 2008 is up by about 60% to 2.7 billion barrels a year. In 2013, total U.S. crude oil production grew by 15% to 8 million barrels per day, as fracking of underground shale formations in the Bakken region of North Dakota allowed the state to grow production by 29% and 177% over the last three years.

Railroads have been making fortunes carrying North Dakota crude oil from the Bakken field at an average cost of $17 a barrel of crude oil to southern refineries, versus an estimated $10 a barrel if the Keystone XL Pipeline had been built. It had been assumed that by 2012 most of that crude oil would be shipped through the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Since railroads were designed to transport freight where people are, whereas pipelines carry toxic products and go to refineries that are specifically located at safe distances away from populated areas, there have been many serious oil train derailments in the last year. Examples in 2013 include the following:

  • In October, thirteen railroad tanker cars carrying propane and crude oil near Alberta, Canada, exploded after derailing, and “the fireball was so big, it shot across both lanes of the Yellowhead” highway;
  • In August a 100-car oil train crashed and blew up in a horrific oil train disaster in a populated area that took 47 lives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec;
  • In June, four rail cars carrying flammable petrochemicals used to dilute oil derailed on a flood-damaged bridge spanning Calgary’s Bow River;
  • In September, 17 cars containing oil on another train derailed in rural Saskatchewan;
  • In April, a number of rail cars jumped the tracks near White River, Ontario, and leaked 17,000 gallons of crude;
  • And in March, fourteen cars in a mile-long train derailed, spilling 14,000 gallons near Minneapolis.

The author welcomes feedback and will respond to comments by readers.


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