On April 30th, a CSX freight train from Chicago with tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and caused a massive explosion in Lynchburg, Virginia, a little under two hundred miles from Norfolk where we are located. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
The accident, the CSX’s second involving oil in 2014 (they had a derailment in Philadelphia in January), adds to a growing count of derailments in North America raising questions about the safety and regulations governing the shipment of crude oil. The deadliest of the recent spate of accidents occurred last July in Canada where forty-seven people lost their lives.
Increasing production leads to more shipping
Much of the oil being moved around the United States for export comes from the Bakken fields in North Dakota, and the first thing to know is that not all “oil” is the same. Depending upon the methods used for extraction and where it was located, not all oil is of the same economic impact or density. Some oil floats on water, other oil sinks to the bottoms of bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and oceans. The derailment in Lynchburg saw oil get into the James River, the economic and environmental impact of which won’t be fully known for a while.
The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (part of the DOT) is investigating and working with private industry to better understand what is being carried and how to make recommendations that protect shippers and the environment.
Authorities changing regulations
There are a number of steps that regulatory bodies in the US and Canada are taking to try to improve safety, including requiring older tank cars to be replaced with newer, more robust ones. Canadian authorities mandated this change already.
It isn’t just oil that is moved by trains that can reach a mile in length and pass close to or through residential areas, but all kinds of hazardous materials and chemicals. Watch a train go by a crossing and look for either a placard and/or a UN number. Both of these will tell you what is traveling in that tank rolling past you.