Train carrying oil derails, explodes in Virginia

The derailment adds to growing concern about shipping oil by rail

Several CSX Corp. tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire Wednesday along the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia, leading to the evacuation of nearby buildings but no injuries, city officials said. The accident will likely add to growing concern as the amount of oil hauled by train throughout the United States and from Canada skyrockets.

The city of Lynchburg posted on its website and Twitter that firefighters on the scene decided to let the fire burn out, and urged motorists and pedestrians to avoid the area. It tweeted that the tanker cars were carrying crude oil and that three or four of them were breached. The city said 13 or 14 tanker cars were involved in the derailment.

Photos and video showed several tanker cars derailed and extensive flames and smoke.

The city said there was no impact on the drinking water for its 77,000 residents due to spillage into the James River. Officials for the city of Richmond, however, said its public utilities department is drawing from an old canal system instead of the James River as a precaution.

The train with about 15 cars was traveling from Chicago to Virginia when it derailed, CSX said in a news release. It did not say where the train was headed. The railroad operator said it is "responding fully, with emergency response personnel, safety and environmental experts, community support teams and other resources."

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it is sending investigators to the scene.

The Lynchburg derailment is one of dozens over the last few years, as oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation and Canada’s tar sands increasingly gets shipped across the U.S. to refineries, many of which are located in the southeast.   

There have been eight significant oil train accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year alone involving trains hauling crude oil — including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to the safety board.

In July 2013, a train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, killing 47 people.

In one of her last acts before leaving office last week, outgoing NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman warned the Obama administration that it needs to take immediate steps to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents, even if it means using emergency authority.

The NTSB has long recommended that the Department of Transportation toughen its design standard for the kind of rail tank cars used to transport crude oil and ethanol, saying the cars are too easily punctured or ruptured, even in low-speed accidents.

"We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," Hersman told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum, held by the board, on the safety of rail transport of oil and ethanol. "There is a very high risk here that hasn't been addressed ... We don't need a higher body count before they move forward."

Glen Besa, the executive director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, reiterated those concerns following Wednesday's derailment.

"This accident is a potent reminder of the dangers that come with our dependence on dirty fuels and reinforces the need for better safety measures and increased emergency preparedness," Besa said in a news release.

Wire services

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