Two oil train derailments within three days have brought renewed attention to the dangers inherent in transporting highly flammable and explosive materials by rail, often through populated areas. The latest freight railroad accidents involving petroleum shipments occurred in rural Ontario, Canada, on February 14, 2015, and in southern West Virginia on the 16th. While neither inflicted serious injuries or deaths, both incurred major property damage and may have long-lasting negative effects on the local environments.
The Canadian National Railway train that went off the rails near the town of Timmins started a conflagration that continued to rage for days. The accident also completely halted traffic on the main east-west rail line through lower Canadian. The destruction of forest land, the spilling of highly toxic heavy tar sands oil into the soil and the economic impact add up to costs to natural and financial resources that may prompt many to ask if the risks of future oil tanker car derailments are worth taking.
The CSX oil train derailment happened in the community of Mount Carbon. Residents and workers had to evacuate to escape flames and choking smoke, and the railroad operator set up a temporary shelter. Fortunately, only one person reported experiencing trouble breathing, but the extent of that individual's inhalation injury was not clear.
A statement from CSX, quoted by television station WVNS, reads:
[Our] teams are working with first responders on the derailment this afternoon of an oil train near Mount Carbon, WV. At least one rail car appears to have ruptured and caught fire. The derailment has resulted in the precautionary evacuation of nearby communities, and precautionary suspension of operation at the Cedar Grove and Montgomery water treatment plants. CSX is working with the Red Cross and other relief organizations to address residents' needs, taking into account winter storm conditions. These efforts include shelters for residents who have been evacuated. CSX teams also are working with first responders to address the fire, to determine how many rail cars derailed, and to deploy environmental protective and monitoring measures on land, air and in the nearby Kanawha River. The company also is working with public officials and investigative agencies to address their needs.
At least one nearby home got destroyed, and the extent of contamination of the Kanawha River, from which drinking water is drawn, may not be known for some time.
These potential disasters come after the oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic that killed some 50 people and leveled much of that eastern Quebec town. Closer to home, several CSX oil tank cars fell into the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia (VA), in April 2014, raising concerns about water safety that remains unsettled.
As a personal injury and wrongful death attorney who specializes in helping victims of railroad accidents, I have tracked the safety of shipping oil by rail for many years. Progress on improving tanker car design, routing trains around cities and ensuring the integrity of bridges and rights-of-way has come slowly, and often in the face of resistance from petroleum producers and rail corporations.
More needs to be done more quickly and by more stakeholders. As things now stand, the question is not if another oil train fire and explosion that inflicts dozens of deaths and irreversible environmental damage will occur, but when.