Oil train explosion rattles and poisons Virginia town

Oil trains throughout the U.S. are literally crashing and burning. One could easily produce a long list of such disasters from last year alone. Another incident can now be added to that list: On Apr. 30, a train derailed in the town of Lynchburg, Virginia, sending three blazing tanker cars careening into the James River and potentially polluting the water with as much as 50,000 gallons of crude. The ensuing explosion forced large-scale evacuations and has left the town and environment in a state of disarray.

The train was headed toward a storage facility in Yorktown owned by Plains All American, after departing from the Bakken oil reserve area in North Dakota and passing through Chicago. Ironically, some of its cars were the new ones (CPC-1232) deemed “safer” by the oil industry than the outdated DOT-111’s. This train had a mix of both, but it is thought likely that one or more of the cars that exploded were CPC-1232’s. Plains All American, meanwhile, is a company that owns a mega-complex in Cushing, Oklahoma, which stores tarsands oil intended for use in the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Flames reportedly shot at least 19 stories upward into the sky. Travis Uhle, manager in-training at local restaurant the Depot Grille, remarked, “We noticed that the train sounded a lot louder than usual. The whole floor shook. That’s when flames just started going up. The train and the rails were toast.”

Merely weeks before this occurred, on Apr. 5, Glen Besa of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter stated his concerns about crude oil transportation in the area. He said, “These trains are traveling through Lynchburg along the James River, through Richmond, and on to the York County facility on the York River. We’re concerned that a train derailment could result in an explosion and the loss of life, or an oil spill that could jeopardize our drinking water supplies and the environment.”

The latter consequence has indeed been realized, and it may be the beginning of a larger problem: the James River feeds directly into the Chesapeake Bay, a vulnerable estuary with a sensitive ecosystem. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an environmental group focused on preserving the area, stated its concerns around the same time as the Sierra Club, with its president William C. Baker stating, “The bay is living on borrowed time in the face of a major oil spill.”

Pat Calvert, with the nonprofit environmental group James River Association, said he has already received reports of “blobs of black glue” floating in the river after the derailment, and there are fears that crude will soon show up on the riverbanks. The river is particularly high after recent heavy rainfall, sparking further concerns that the contamination will spread quickly. “We’ve had train derailments on the river before,” said Calvert, “but it’s never before been a toxic substance. I hope a real national discussion will ensue so this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s river or community. I just wish it wasn’t happening to our river.”

The exact cause of this derailment and explosion are not yet known. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, but that could take time. According to InsideClimate, “the Board, which conducts investigations following major accidents, recently noted that it has just 10 rail inspectors to handle 20 ongoing investigations involving railroad oil tankers.”

And understaffing isn’t the only issue the Board is concerned about. Chairman Deborah Hersman said on Apr. 23 (seven days before the disaster) that the Obama administration needs to take new steps to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents, “even if it means using emergency authority.” Hersman said, “This issue needs to be acted on very quickly. There is a very high risk here that isn’t being addressed. And there isn’t time to wait for the cumbersome federal rulemaking process.” She added that there is a “tombstone mentality” amongst the Transportation Department: “We know the steps that will prevent or mitigate these accidents. But there’s a lot of difficulty concerning safety rules being implemented if we don’t have a high enough body count.”

Photo: LuAnn Hunt/AP




Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the assembly of the PW home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Pennsylvania with his cat. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a novel.