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Dangerous Cargo Rides the Rails: Rising Risks

LuAnn Hunt, City of Lynchburg, via Associated Press

It’s been nearly two months since a train derailed in Lynchburg, sending a fireball into the sky above that city’s downtown and spilling oil into the James River. 

Experts said the accident could have been far worse, and many communities along the state’s 3200 miles of railroad face similar dangers. 

The city of Lynchburg grew and prospered for decades because freight moved easily here – first by river and then by rail.  Trains were a routine part of city life, but on April 30 that routine was shattered.

A CSX train had derailed, with 17 of its 105 cars going off the tracks.  Three fell into the James River, and one ruptured, spilling more than 30,000 gallons of crude oil.  Fire Chief Brad Ferguson studied the situation and concluded the best thing was to let the blaze burn.

“We could see that there was no flame impingement on the cars that were next to it, which made us feel much better that we didn’t have a blevy situation.  A blevy is an acronym for boiling liquid/expanding vapor explosion.  What actually occurs is you have a tank car that’s enclosed, and if a flame gets on it, it heats the contents of that car to the point that it explodes.  You can blevy a 55-gallon drum.  It looks like an atomic bomb went off.

What he didn’t know at the time was that this train carried crude from the Bakken region in North Dakota.  A million barrels of the stuff are drilled each day – most of it heading for refineries on the East and West coasts by rail – and it’s got a reputation for trouble.

“People would expect it to spill, and cause a mess, but they would not expect crude oil to explode the way it has.”

Marianne Lavelle has covered energy and the environment for more than 20 years and now writes for The Daily Climate – an online publication based in Charlottesville.

“Bakken crude became a huge part of the North American energy picture almost overnight, and just as quickly it began going on rail, because they have never had the infrastructure to send that much oil out of state."

Bakken is loaded into tank cars designed to carry corn syrup or vegetable oil, but it’s far more dangerous than those cargoes, perhaps because it contains more gases like methane and propane.

“Think of a tank car as moving a can of soda, and if you shake a can of soda and flip the top, what happens to the can, and what happens to the contents?  That’s what’s happening to the old DOT-111 tank cars.”

Patricia Reilly speaks for the American Association of Railroads.  They don’t own the cars they transport.  They’re leased – and the railroads have been asking the federal government to demand stronger models for three years.  Other voices joined in last summer when a runaway train carrying Bakken crude through Quebec crashed in a tiny Canadian town called Lac Megantic.  Forty-seven people were killed in the fire and explosion that followed. North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann described the devastation.

“The view is horrific.  The center of Lac Megantic is reduced to fields of scorched brick and wilted metal – more than 30 buildings wiped out.”

Since that deadly disaster, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation has been scrambling to assure something similar doesn’t happen here. 

In our next report, we’ll look at some things that might make transporting Bakken crude safer and tell you why those changes will be a challenge.

Click here information about the CSX notice sent to Virginia's Department of Emergency Management, listing communities through which Bakken is passing.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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