A train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded Wednesday, releasing a large fireball in the heart of Lynchburg, Va., and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people.
The wreckage burned for hours on Wednesday as emergency crews struggled to get close enough to the burning tank cars to extinguish the blaze, while a nearby river lit up with flames as thousands of barrels of crude oil spilled from the train.
City officials in Lynchburg said 14 crude-oil cars operated by the CSX railway derailed at about 2 p.m., “causing extensive flames and dense black smoke” which forced parts of downtown to be evacuated. No injuries were reported, and the cause of the derailment has not been determined. The train had been traveling from Chicago to Virginia.
Joann Martin, a spokeswoman for the city, said three or four cars had ruptured. A bridge and several roads were closed in the wake of the blast, and as many as 350 people were told to leave buildings in the area, Ms. Martin said. Lieutenant David Gearhart, from the Lynchburg police department, said Wednesday evening that the fire had been contained but was still burning.
The Lynchburg derailment is the fourth time in the past 10 months that a train carrying crude oil has erupted in massive explosions in North America, raising questions about the safety of shipping crude by rail. A sharp increase in oil production from such areas as North Dakota, along with a shortage of pipelines to ship the crude to refineries, has given rise to moving large amounts of crude on trains. However, safety regulations have not kept pace with the rapid growth of the industry.
In July, 2013, a train carrying more than 70 cars of crude oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people in the worst rail accident in Canadian history. In November, a crude-oil train derailed in rural Alabama, causing a massive fireball that scorched the nearby swampland. In December, an oil train derailed in rural North Dakota, causing huge fires that forced the evacuation of a nearby town.
Similar to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the Lynchburg derailment happened in the middle of a populated area. Such explosions have pushed the debate over the safety of shipping crude by rail to the highest levels in Washington and Ottawa. As recently as five or six years ago, very little oil was shipped by rail in North America, but the business has grown quickly and trains carrying upward of 100 cars of crude through cities and towns are now a common sight.
Mason Basten, who owns a boating shop near the derailment site, told a local television station that he could hear the train straining and making a banging sound, and when he looked outside he watched the train halt suddenly and cars slamming together, causing an explosion that set the adjacent river on fire. “The train was making a weird sound,” Mr. Basten told WSET in Lynchburg. “It was going at a pretty good speed… and it suddenly just stopped.”
Nicole Gibs, 32, a server at the Depot Grille just across the street from the tracks, said she was waiting on a table when she heard a train that sounded louder than usual. She saw several train cars wobbling, and then one fell over, sparking a fire immediately. Several other cars also toppled “like Tyco trains,” she said.
The manager yelled: “Evacuate!” and the restaurant immediately began emptying, with some people in wheelchairs being carried down steps as the fire raged, filling the air with black smoke. The people from the restaurant moved a block away, then two.
“You could feel the heat like you were standing by a campfire,” Ms. Gibs said. “It was hot.”
Lynchburg city manager Kimball Payne said about 50,000 gallons of oil were missing from the tankers, but fire officials were unsure how much had burned up and how much had spilled into the water. Those estimates are based on thermal imaging done of the three tankers that were partially in river. Each car holds 30,000 gallons of oil, the city manager said.
City spokeswoman JoAnn Martin said the derailment did not affect the water supply for Lynchburg’s 77,000 residents because the water is only drawn from the James River in times of drought.
Still, drinking water was the first concern for Lynchburg resident Mark Lindy, a network engineer who came with his son, Zach, to look at the accident scene. He said he planned to buy a week’s worth of water for his family just to be safe.
“I’m not drinking tap water, that’s for sure,” he said.
Booms have been set up and have appeared to contain the spill, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said. The agency said it will oversee the oil cleanup and assess the river for any damage.
CSX said it is “responding fully, with emergency response personnel, safety and environmental experts, community support teams and other resources.” Ms. Martin said CSX cleanup crews were expected to be on the scene by midnight and anticipated being able to finish their work by the close of business Thursday.
The NTSB said it is sending investigators, as is the Federal Railroad Administration.
Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration official, said given the recent wet weather in Virginia and the accident’s location near a river, it is possible that soft subsoil may have weakened the track.
Railroads “try to catch that before it gets out of hand,” but aren’t always successful, he said.
When the deadly derailment tore through Lac-Mégantic last summer, officials from the oil industry and rail sector characterized the disaster as an unfortunate event that would likely not be repeated. However, the subsequent derailments have raised questions about whether existing rail safety standards are enough to police the rapidly growing oil-by-rail industry.
The volatility of the oil has also come under close scrutiny. An investigation by The Globe and Mail revealed in December that oil shipped from North Dakota was not being tested properly for its volatility, and shippers had no idea that the crude sent through Lac-Mégantic last summer was highly explosive. The investigation showed that the crude from the Bakken oil region, which straddles parts of North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is lighter than typical forms of crude and can be as explosive as gasoline, particularly when it vaporizes during transit.
When highly explosive materials, such as propane, are shipped by rail they are sent in pressurized cars. However, oil is typically shipped in standard DOT-111 rail cars, many of which are aging. Although U.S. and Canadian transport officials have talked about speeding up the introduction of new DOT-111 rail cars, which would be made of stronger materials, it is not clear that newer cars would prevent explosions of highly volatile oil, such as the light crude being shipped from the Bakken region.
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