A week after a CSX train hauling crude oil derailed and exploded 30 miles southeast of Charleston, W. Va., on Feb. 16, its mangled, charred tank cars were still being hauled from the crash site. Of the 27 cars that derailed, 19 had been engulfed in flames.
The wreckage burned for almost three days. “It’s amazing no one was killed,” says John Whitt, whose home is one of a handful clustered near the crash site, along the banks of the Kanawha River. Some were within 30 yards of the site. One home was destroyed.
Fiery wrecks of trains hauling crude oil have intensified pressure on the Obama administration to approve tougher standards for railroads and tank cars despite industry complaints that it could cost billions and slow freight deliveries.
On Feb. 5, the Transportation Department sent the White House draft rules that would require oil trains to use stronger tank cars and make other safety improvements.
On Feb. 22 the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced that is now able to move forward with its full-scale forensic investigation into the derailment outside of Montgomery, W. Va., followed by a slower start earlier this week hampered by weather and safety concerns.
During a media conference in Boomer, W. Va., FRA announced next steps in its ongoing investigation into the incident, which includes participation from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The FRA is the lead Federal agency charged with investigating Monday’s derailment.
“With the response and recovery effort now complete, and the dangers associated with the initial derailment now minimized, the FRA will now begin its thorough investigation into the derailment,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “I thank the emergency responders who stepped into harm’s way to evacuate the affected communities, and I am eternally grateful that no residents were seriously injured.”
On Monday, Feb. 16, a 109-car unit train pulled by two locomotives derailed 27 tank cars carrying Bakken crude oil near the Kanawha River, approximately 30 miles southeast of Charleston, WV. The Department’s FRA and PHMSA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, and West Virginia state agencies have been at the site of the derailment since Monday evening.
“We are grateful to the first responders for evacuating residents safely, and grateful to the Coast Guard, the EPA and state and local agencies that worked together to immediately address urgent conditions at the derailment site,” said Sarah Feinberg, acting Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. “Now it is time for the FRA to begin our investigation into this incident in earnest, to identify any warranted enforcement actions, and to continue our work to ensure accidents like these do not continue.”
A full team of FRA investigators will remain in the Montgomery area for several days, and possibly weeks, as the investigation continues.
Initial activity at the derailment site focused on response and recovery, including controlling fires, containment of the crude oil release into surrounding areas, and protection of communities and drinking water sources near the derailment site. Although inclement weather, safety concerns for the community and its water supply, evacuations and fire containment limited the DOT’s initial steps in its investigation and data collection, the Department is now moving aggressively with a full-scale, thorough investigation into the cause of the derailment.
The FRA will now inspect all damaged tank cars, recover damaged rail from the accident site, and review maintenance and inspection records for rolling stock, track, signals, and locomotives. Equipment recovered from the accident site, including tank cars, tank car wheels and trucks, and damaged rail will be reassembled, documented, or reconstructed by FRA investigators at a location near the derailment site.
The FRA will systematically examine all recovered components to either eliminate or identify issues related to wheels, track, axles or other components that could have caused or contributed to the accident.
Additionally, the PHMSA is conducting testing of the crude oil product involved in the derailment to determine gas content, volatility, tank car performance and to ascertain compliance with federal hazardous material regulations related to proper product classification. The results of the inquiry will be included in FRA’s final investigative report.
“We continue to look into the composition of Bakken crude oil, which is why we took samples of the product to verify appropriate classification and whether emergency responders received the accurate information to respond to this derailment,” said Tim Butters, Acting Administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Investigations into derailments can take significant time and resources. A full team of FRA investigators will remain in the Montgomery area for several days, and possibly weeks, as the investigation continues.
As the Department’s investigation continues, other federal and state agencies will continue to monitor the derailment site and surrounding areas to ensure it remains safe for residents. The EPA and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection will continue to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard to test and monitor water quality and atmospheric conditions in the vicinity of the derailment.
The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.
The projection comes from a previously unreported analysis by the Department of Transportation that reviewed the risks of moving vast quantities of both fuels across the nation and through major cities. The study completed last July took on new relevance this week after a train loaded with crude derailed in West Virginia, sparked a spectacular fire and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families.
The railroad cars involved in the fiery derailment in West Virginia on Monday were a newer model that was supposed to be safer than older tankers blamed in other recent oil train explosions.
The ruptured cars were built to specifications adopted by the railroad industry in 2011 amid criticism that older tankers were dangerously susceptible to puncture and a risk of explosion. Called CPC 1232 cars, the newer tankers were also involved in an April 2014 derailment and explosion in Lynchburg, Va.
American oil trains spilled crude oil more often in 2014 than in any year since the federal government began collecting data on such incidents in 1975, an NBC News analysis shows.
The record number of spills sparked a fireball in Virginia, polluted groundwater in Colorado, and destroyed a building in Pennsylvania, causing at least $5 million in damages and the loss of 57,000 gallons of crude oil.
BNSF Railway Co., the railroad owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK/A), is reconsidering a plan to buy 5,000 oil-tank cars built to new safety standards after some customers voiced concern about the initiative.
“At first everybody applauded us for doing it,” BNSF Chairman Matt Rose said today during a panel discussion in Washington on oil-by-rail safety, without specifying which concerns were raised. “We’re going to go back and talk to our customers and see what they want us to do.”