Transportation

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Dangerous Cargo Riding the Rails

Feb 6, 2015
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.

Each year officials investigate an average of ten derailments in Virginia alone.  Most involve coal or grain – cargoes unlikely to cause trouble for nearby communities, but a growing number of trains now carry oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota. 

Because it contains high levels of gas, it’s more volatile than some other forms of crude, and transporting it by rail could be putting whole communities at risk. 

For decades Americans have worried about our dependence on foreign oil and gas.  By 2005 we were importing 60% of our energy, but in 2008 a new technology called horizontal hydrologic fracturing or “fracking” raised the promise of energy independence. 

U.S. crude production is up 50% and  imports have fallen 35%.  But getting oil from a massive shale deposit in North Dakota to refineries is raising serious concerns about public safety.

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