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.
When a train derailed in Lynchburg earlier this year, causing one tank car to explode and burn, experts said the city was lucky. The burning car fell into the James River, so the risk of a multi-car explosion was minimized. Touring the site a few days later, Governor Terry McAuliffe said the situation could have been much worse.
"If these rail cars had not tipped off and gone into the river – what if they’d tipped and gone this side – the population center. I just went by a facility and there were hundreds of kids out front."
In addition to fears of explosion and fire, he’s concerned about pollution of drinking water. At the Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney Anthony Swift says rail tracks often parallel rivers and other waterways, and the nation saw more oil spilled in 2013 than it had in the past forty years.
“I mean you’re looking at crude oils with enormous quantities of benzene and tolene – chemicals that are known to be carcinogens and neurotoxins at very low levels.”
Firefighters believe much of the oil that spilled into the James River at Lynchburg burned off, but Richmond’s fire chief, Robert Creecy, says you could smell contamination downstream.
"We were aware that we had some odor of fuel oil that moved through the community pretty quickly. It happened at night. It wasn’t humanly possible to contain it. "
That’s why the governor wants oil trains to go around cities, and environmentalists prefer routes far from sensitive areas. Federal administrator Joe Szabo says railroads have agreed to consider those factors.
“Carriers now will use a computer model that weighs 27 factors -- the size of communities, the speeds, the conditions of tracks, the conditions of signaling systems, other potential risks along the route , to ensure that the route that is used is the most safe route for moving that product.”
But Marianne Lavelle, who covers energy for The Daily Climate is skeptical.
"The oil is being produced in the middle of North America, and traditionally all of our refineries and our ports – all of the infrastructure to turn crude oil into products that people can use is on the coasts, and it’s in very populated areas on the coasts, so the idea that you’re going to tell the industry, ‘You can’t drive the trains through populated areas,’ That’s not going to work, because their goal is to drive it to the refineries, which are all in very populated areas."
Patricia Reilly, who speaks for the American Association of Railroads, adds the safest route may actually be through cities. "To automatically reroute a crude oil train around a less populated area does not guarantee that it’s going to ride on the most sophisticated track that is necessary for moving hazardous materials and crude oil."
And if there is an accident, experts say fire departments in smaller communities are rarely prepared to contain an explosive chemical spill. Michael Mohler is President of the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association.
"Localities in the rural areas don’t have the tax base to support a career department. They don’t get the training that’s absolutely necessary for this. They’re maintaining just a very basic training, and then when something like this hits, they’re at the mercy of the event."
Railroads do offer free training for first responders, but some communities can’t afford to pay for the time away, and others say no amount of training will prevent the disasters possible when explosive freight is moving at high speeds.
We’ll look at efforts to slow the trains and to build stronger cars in our next report.
Click here information about the CSX notice sent to Virginia's Department of Emergency Management, listing communities through which Bakken is passing.