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.
Within hours of a rail crash in Lynchburg on April 30, inspectors for the state and federal governments and CSX were on the scene – trying to figure out why 17 cars derailed and one ruptured – producing flames, smoke and a significant oil spill.
Getting official answers could take 18 months, but there are clues that suggest a cause for the accident and a future course of action to improve rail safety.
In just over a year, North America has seen a dozen serious accidents involving trains that derailed while carrying flammable crude oil. One of those accidents, in Lynchburg, caused a massive fire and oil spill. In most cases, fire departments didn’t know what they were dealing with, since railroads have kept that information secret, but the federal government is now requiring them to inform states when trains of 35 cars or more, carrying oil from North Dakota or Montana, are coming through.