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Environment

"Bomb Train" Derails and Explodes in West Virginia, Two Towns Evacuated

Despite numerous spills and explosions, Congressional Republicans call oil-by-rail "very safe."

A CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in West Virginia, causing massive explosions and sending one tanker car into a nearby river where the contents have reportedly spilled and caught fire. 

The train carried 109 tankers of crude oil. It derailed at 1:20 p.m. near the Kanawha River some 30 miles southeast of Charleston. Some 14 or 15 cars ignited while at least one plunged into the river. There are no reported injuries, but two homes were destroyed by fire and hundreds of residents from two nearby towns were asked to evacuate their homes as fires moved up nearby hillside. Flames were also seen on the river. Environmental and emergency response teams arrived at the scene shortly after the train derailed. 

On Monday, West Virginia received a heavy snowfall, as much as 5 inches in some areas, but as of yet, there is no evidence that the winter storm was responsible for the derailment. The site of the derailment was a flat stretch of rail. 

The rail company acknowledged the derailment on its Twitter page and said that it was working with first responders at the scene.

Witnesses say that one of the explosions was a huge, 300-foot fireball.

Two water treatment plants were shut down because of oil contamination in the river over contamination concerns. Some 1,000 people get their drinking water from the river.

The scene of the derailment about 30 miles from where Freedom Industries leaked 10,000 gallons  of the chemical 4 Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM) into the Elk River last year. MCHM is used to wash coal of impurities and is highly toxic. 

The West Virginia explosion comes just two days after a train carrying Canadian oil sands derailed in northern Ontario. Seven cars caught fire and are still burning, according to reports. 

In the past few years, endless strings of black tanker cars have become commonplace sightings at railroad crossings. They move along briskly with red hazmat placards reading “1267” — indicating crude oil — affixed to them. And while the rail and oil industries assure the public that these “virtual pipelines” are not much of a hazard, they're behemoths of kinetic energy flush with vast amounts of potential, explosive energy. An impact with a tanker car can spark a catastrophic detonation, annihilating whatever is nearby.

One such explosion occurred last summer in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a tiny lakeside village of less than 6,000 people in July 2013. A 74-car train carrying Bakken formation crude oil ran away and derailed, resulting in a massive explosion of multiple tanker cars. The blast radius was more than a half mile in diameter. Forty-seven people were killed, and 30 buildings — about half the village's downtown — were leveled.

The tanker cars that exploded in West Virginia were CPC 1232 models, which are considered to be safer than the DOT-111 tanker cars that were involved in the Lac-Mégantic explosion. 

In six short years, the number of rail cars loaded with crude oil has increased more than 40-fold, and industry analysts predict that the amount of oil-by-rail will quadruple over the next decade. Oil-by-rail shipments through densely populated areas including suburban New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Albany, NY, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo, are expected to increase significantly.

Besides explosions, there have been several significant spills across the U.S. in the past six years. Together, these events have spilled more than 3 million gallons of oil, polluting wetlands, aquifers and residential areas, and the spills are not always cleaned up adequately, if at all. What's even more unsettling is that the volume of crude oil moving through the country by rail increases unabated, raising the odds of more tragedies in the future.

Republicans in Congress are stonewalling safety regulations for these trains. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads declares that the industry is "very safe" and has delayed legislation that would make rail cars carrying oil safer.

“I want to make sure as the administration drags their feet or reorganizes or does some shuffling that there is not a misperception out there in the American public that a) that our current tank cars are not safe, that our industry does not have a safe record and, most importantly, that there is not some magic quick fast track to get all of these new tank cars online very, very quickly," says Rep. Denham. 

But it's not just the American public that perceives oil tanker cars as unsafe. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is has repeatedly raised red flags about the DOT-111 tank cars, going on 20 years. Earlier this year, the NTSB added said that rail tank car safety was on its "Most Wanted List" of items to improve transportation safety. Last year, an NTSB board member testified that using the DOT-111 rail cars to transport crude oil posed an “unacceptable public risk.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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